Rory McIlroy produced a sensational late rally to keep his US PGA title hopes on life support as Shane Lowry launched a blistering charge to move into the mix at Quail Hollow.
McIlroy came from nine shots behind at halfway to win his maiden PGA Tour title at Quail Hollow in 2010.
But he insisted that two 67s could still be enough to earn him his fifth major title on Sunday after he rallied from four over from the tournament with three to play with a birdie-birdie-par finish.
It all added up to a second successive 72 for McIlroy, who is 10 shots behind early leader Kevin Kisner on two over par but still bullish about his chances of making a weekend comeback as Lowry played his first 15 holes in five-under par to move into the top 10 on two under.
The Holywood star produced a Seve-like par save at his opening hole — sending a low six-iron rocketing off a cart path, through a bunker and onto the edge of the green after his approach to the par-five 10th careered down the same cart path, 80 yards right of the green.
It was an early moment of magic from the world No 4 but there was precious little else to cheer until he was forced to scramble away from the cut line, carding birdies at his 16th and 17th holes before leaving a 12 foot chance on the lip at the last and carded a second successive 72.
“I feel a lot better about myself being two-over for the tournament instead of four-over,” McIlroy said.
“I think it’s quite a big difference. If I get out tomorrow and get off to hopefully a better start, I feel like I’ll still be right in this tournament.”
Had he not birdied two of the easiest holes on the course, holing a pair of five footers at the par-five seventh and short, par-four eighth, his chances of victory would have suffered a massive blow.
But he now feels he can put pressure on 33-year old Kisner, who fired a second successive 67 to lead by five shots in the clubhouse from Rickie Fowler (70) and by six from Korea’s Ben An (69) on eight-under par.
“Obviously ‘Kis’ is on fire right now,” McIlroy said. “He’s eight-under par for the tournament. But take him out of the equation, I feel like I’m still right there in the tournament.”
McIlroy is no stranger to pulling off the seemingly impossible at Quail Hollow, making the cut on the mark before carding weekend rounds of 66 and 62 to win his maiden PGA Tour title here in 2010.
His problem is that a ramped Quail Hollow bears no resemblance to the course where he laid the foundations of his second Quail Hollow win two years ago with a third round 61.
“It’s a completely different golf course,” McIlroy said. “Even if they didn’t do anything else with the golf course and just changed it to full bermuda like it is now, all of a sudden makes the golf course two shots more difficult.”
The rough was McIlroy’s biggest problem yesterday as he hit just seven fairways and left himself an average of 54 feet from the hole.
When he did find fairways and hit approach shots close, he missed putts with an eight and a half footer at the 15th his biggest success in two days.
At the 16th, he blasted a 357-yard drive straight down the middle, fired a glorious third to nine feet and watched as playing partners Jon Rahm and Rickie Fowler made 12 footers for par before missed his birdie putt.
After going through the turn in one under par, level for the championship, McIlroy needed to make in-roads into Kisner’s lead but went backwards instead with four bogeys in five holes.
After a bogey at the second, where he flared his approach from the right rough wide of the green and missed from nine feet, he three putted from 35 feet at the third then dropped another shot at the fifth after finding a fairway bunker. When he missed the green and a six footer for par at the 243-yard sixth, he was outside the cut mark on four-over par.
But he rallied in true McIlroy style, converting five footers for birdie at the par-five seventh and short, par-four eighth before leaving a 12 footer hanging on the left lip at the last.
“I knew there was a couple of chances coming up,” McIlroy said. “I said to Harry, ‘Let’s birdie two of the last three.’
“He said, ‘No, let’s birdie the last three.’ So I was able to do the first part. Had a good chance at the last and didn’t quite convert.”
Asked if he saw a “low one” out there, he said: “Yeah, but I guess a low round used to be a 61 or a 62. A low round now is a 66 or a 67.
“You’re playing your ass off to get that. I’d say, if I shoot two 67s over the weekend, I’m going to have a really good chance.”
As McIlroy put his feet up, Lowry was storming up the leaderboard in sensational fashion.
Tied 62nd on three over starting the day, he made a 26 footer for a two at the fourth, then made three birdies in five holes early on the back nine to move into the red on one-under par.
After converting from eight fee at the 10th, Lowry made a 20 footer at the 11th, saved par from 14 feet at the 12th, knocked in a seven footer for birdie at the driveable 14th and chipped dead to set up a tap in birdie at the par-five 15th to move up to tied seventh on two under.
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