PGA Championship 2023

PGA Championship 2023: The Rory-coaster was in full effect on a wild Saturday

May 20, 2023

Rory McIlroy plays his second shot on the ninth hole.

David Cannon

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — In the player interview area at Oak Hill Country Club, Rory McIlroy's manager signaled to a PGA of America official with two fingers, indicating the number of further questions that would be allowed before they escaped to wherever you go when you're the No. 3 player in the world living out a familiar script at a major championship. Only three questions had been asked up to that point, but no matter how many there were allowed, the mysteries of McIlroy’s post-2014 career, after he stopped winning majors, would persist.

For instance: Was his one-under-par 69 on Saturday, which propelled him into a tie for seventh at one under place at the PGA Championship, good or frustrating?

On one hand, only co-leader Brooks Koepka (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68) did any better on a day of consistent and occasionally torrential rain at Oak Hill. By any metric, McIlroy did well to finish under par. On the other, that he got within a whisper of contention with two early birdies before three straight bogeys at 6, 8, and 9 undermined him, and then crept closer yet again before another birdie on 17 pushed him five shots back, provoked a sense of deja vu.

The Irishman has a slight chance to win on Sunday, but there's also the feeling—so common in recent years—that there's a tangible gravitational pull tugging him downward when he gets too close to the top spot at these majors.

McIlroy, whose demeanor has looked deflated at times this week, didn't seem overly enthused about the state of his physical game even after surviving and advancing through the downpour.

"I think I still don't feel like my game is in great shape," he said. "I've held it together well. I've holed some good putts. I've scored well. I probably hit it a little better off the tee today than I did the first couple of days. But I think this tournament, and especially in these conditions and on this golf course, the non-physical parts of the game I think are way more important this week than the physical parts of the game, and I think I've done those well, and that's the reason that I'm in a decent position."


Rory McIlroy lets go of his driver after hitting his tee shot on the 17th hole.

Andy Lyons

With Netflix cameras following him to every stop, he moved from CBS to Sky Sports to the PIA with his usual professionalism, managing to convey more insight than most of the cliche peddlers at the elite levels while still seeming a bit removed from his usual extrovert self. Hus five birdies kept him just within shouting distance heading into what should be a more pleasant Sunday with a higher potential for very low rounds. McIlroy’s approach game yielded the greatest benefit, with none of his made birdie putts coming from longer than six feet.

"I made enough birdies to shoot a score like [65]," he said. "I just needed to keep those mistakes off the card. I need to keep hope. I have to believe that there is a score like that out there because looking at the board, it's probably a score I'm going to have to shoot."

In other words, if he's succeeded at a damage control protocol up to this point, Sunday he needs to enter hyperspace and muster the kind of dynamic round that hasn't been available to him since he tied for second at Bay Hill in early March.

With the leader Koepka five shots better and five others fillings the space between them, this feels like another too-tall order for McIlroy. A cynical person might predict that he'll surge early, raise some eyebrows, and then fade once he's close enough to seem like a real contender. That's a pattern that has played out on major Sundays almost too many times to count for the man who has gone nearly a full decade since his last major victory, and it almost seems like the best-case scenario at Oak Hill.

Then again, just as McIlroy, who is paired with one of the stars of the week, teaching pro Michael Block, intends to "keep hope," so will his fans, and the Rory-coaster experience is about enduring the steep climbs and perilous descents while holding at least a little faith that one of these days, it's going to work out.