Rory McIlroy hangs in and gives himself outside shot at PGA

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland watches his tee Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland watches his tee shot on the fourth hole during the third round of the 95th PGA Championship in Rochester, New York. (Aug. 10, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty

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Mark Herrmann Newsday columnist Mark Herrmann

Herrmann has covered the Mets and Yankees since 1988, and has been Newsday’s national golf writer since ...

PITTSFORD, N.Y. - There still is plenty of wisdom in Rory McIlroy after all. He still has a wisdom tooth, too, but it is his wisdom that is in play right now at the PGA Championship.

McIlroy was wise enough not to take the bait when someone asked him the other day if the media ought to lay off him. He said at the time, before the tournament, that reporters ought to do what they do and assured them that he would answer the questions, no matter how hard.

And he also was wise enough not to pack it in or get discouraged when it appeared that he had no shot at defending his championship won emphatically at Kiawah Island last year.

He still isn't in terrific shape, tied for seventh at 3 under par and six strokes behind Jim Furyk's lead, but he does have a shot. More than anyone else, McIlroy put a charge into this PGA Saturday by finishing with two improbable birdies for a 67.

Most striking is that he is miles above the other two biggest names in golf, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who started poorly and progressively got worse. Though it would be a stretch to say that the sport has a new Big Three, it does have three names that are more recognizable than any others. Of those three, only McIlroy, the defending champion, has a chance to create magic and make history at Oak Hill on Sunday.

All of this goes to say that he seems more stable and hopeful than he had been at the Honda Classic early this season, when he abruptly dropped out in the middle of a round, citing a painful wisdom tooth. He said here the other day that he never did get the thing pulled. He has found a way to cope.

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That skill sure came into play this week, when he appeared on his way home midway through his second round. He rallied with four birdies in his final four holes and made the cut, giving him new life Saturday. McIlroy's third round was nothing to speak of until the 17th hole, when he drew a roar with a 40-footer for birdie. Then on No. 18, he chipped in for another birdie, and another huge cheer, at just about the time that Jason Dufner was making double bogey on No. 5.

At the time, McIlroy was only four shots out of first and there was reason to think, "Here we go." The leaders were all making bogeys, which did not escape McIlroy's notice.

"Very aware," he said right after his round. "I'm going to enjoy watching this afternoon."

What he saw probably did not entertain him as much as he thought it would. Dufner found his footing and Furyk had a revival. Still, a six-stroke deficit is not the end of the world. Mickelson was five back entering the final round of the British Open last month, and he won.

McIlroy has hit his own ignition switch in the past, too. "I just think back to Quail Hollow a few years ago and what I did [on] the weekend there," he said, referring to his first PGA Tour win in 2010, when he barely made the cut, then shot 66 and 62, going 5 under on his final five holes.

He knows this is different. This is a major. The good news for him is that he seems different from the guy with the bad wisdom tooth, the guy who maybe tried to be too much like Woods -- having lunch with Tiger, playing practice rounds with Tiger, signing up with Tiger's equipment company.

McIlroy is at his best when he is just being the kid who grew up in blue-collar Northern Ireland. He is at his best when he is just plain Rory, telling the media it is not his place to tell anyone how to scrutinize him.

The defending champion might not win Sunday. But it would be wise to keep an eye on him.

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