Rory McIlroy was heading towards his second major title tonight – at a younger age than Tiger Woods managed it – as the sporting attention of the world began to turn away from London.
With six holes to play in the USPGA Championship at Kiawah Island the 23-year-old Northern Irishman, winner of the US Open by eight last year, was six shots clear.
But he reached that position only after a brilliant birdie burst by Ryder Cup teammate Ian Poulter threatened to turn the final day of the season’s final major into a real thriller.
Poulter birdied the first five holes, six of the first seven and from six shots behind narrowed his deficit to just one.
Runner-up to Padraig Harrington in the 2008 Open, Poulter’s charge came unstuck on the back nine, however. Three bogeys in a row from the 13th took him back alongside Carl Pettersson in joint second place.
The Swede was not going to forget the tournament in a hurry. Leader after an opening 66, joint top at halfway and still in with a great shout setting off for the closing 18 holes three behind, he suffered a two-stroke penalty on the first.
His drive was pushed into the edge of a hazard and in playing his second shot he disturbed a leaf on his takeaway and was told about the penalty two holes later after it had been reviewed by officials.
Pettersson still managed a front nine 34, but McIlroy turned in 33 with birdies at the second, third and seventh and he could breathe a lot easier after holing a 12-foot putt for another on the 12th.
What was shaping up to be his second major crown promised the extra satisfaction of beating Tiger Woods for it.
Not in Washington last June because of injury, Woods was in a tie for ninth with five holes remaining after failing to make the most of his chance just like the last two majors.
Poulter’s performance was guaranteeing him another Ryder Cup cap next month, while Harrington improved his hopes no end when he finished the outward half with a hat-trick of birdies to move into tied fourth.
But the Dubliner was left needing a wild card when he bogeyed three of the next four and instead it was Poulter’s close friend Justin Rose who set the early clubhouse target.
Rose shot 66 for four under – seven behind McIlroy – despite rolling into the lake on the short 17th.
The action began at 7.45am and the completion of the third round certainly did not lack for drama. It even included Woods being attacked by a prickly pear cactus.
“It got in both legs – well, left shoe, right shoe and then in my right leg,” he said of the incident right of the 15th fairway.
“It itched like hell for about a hole and then it was gone.”
At first Woods, recovering from an “horrific” front nine 40, was limping badly as he made his way down the hole, but he called for a towel from caddie Joe LaCava and carefully extracted the thorns.