Rory McIlroy appears ideally placed to scratch his seven-year itch at the majors courtesy of a vintage third round of 67 at the 121st US Open on Saturday.
The former world number one lifted the last of his four majors at the 2014 US PGA Championship at Valhalla, but looked back to his bouncing best as five birdies and a bogey saw him move ominously from plus one to minus three after 54 holes of the season's third major at Torrey Pines.
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On traditional moving day, McIlroy is only two shots adrift of the overnight leaders Louis Oosthuizen, Russell Henley and Mackenzie Hughes, who start Sunday on five under ahead of an absorbing final day in San Diego that will see McIlroy play with Henley in the penultimate group at 12.44pm (8.44pm BST).
"It's the best I've played all week. I am just so happy that I’ve given myself another chance," said McIlroy, who holed a 30-yard chip from the rough short of the green on the par-four 12th for a memorable birdie.
“It feels like a while since I’ve had a chance to win a major championship going into a Sunday and it was great to play a round of golf today to give myself that chance.
It’s not going to be quite as easy as it was 10 years ago, but my game feels good and a round like today proves I can go out there again and try to do the same thing tomorrow.
The Northern Irishman lifted his maiden major title when he destroyed the field with an eight-stroke winning margin at Congressional in the 2011 US Open, but the ensuing decade has not sparked the McIlroy dynasty in the sport that many commentators predicted.
At the age of 32, it is not too late for him to make good on his early promise as he bids to add to his back catalogue of two US PGA titles, the US Open and Open Championship claimed between 2011 and 2014.
A lack of consistency in the opening round of the majors has not helped McIlroy. Prior to his round of 70 at Torrey's exacting South Course perched on the winds of the Pacific Ocean on Thursday, he was 35 over for his opening contributions since 2014, seriously hampering his hopes of mounting a sustained challenge at the sport's blue-chip events.
A share of second place, two strokes behind Open winner Francesco Molinari at Carnoustie three years ago, has been his best finish over the past seven years, but his mindset seems to be right to go one better at Torrey.
A poor drive at the 15th that disappeared down a canyon could have proved fatal on Saturday, but he scrambled superbly well to make a bogey with an up and down limiting the damage to only one dropped shot that he retrieved with a closing birdie on the par-five 18th.
"Huge, huge to keep momentum,” said McIlroy, whose latest PGA Tour victory came at the Wells Fargo Championship last month.
"As I said, this is the only tournament in the world where you fist pump a bogey.”
Rory McIlroy at the 15th hole.
Image credit: Eurosport
An overnight deficit of six is suddenly down to two, but he has plenty of competition in the chase for the season's third major with 20 players at level par or better before the closing 18 holes.
Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau pieced together a fine round of 68 to move from level par to minus three as he chases back-to-back US Open titles with his power game, a feat achieved by his fierce rival Brooks Koepka in 2017 and 2018.
Koepka is far from finished in his bid for a third US Open after a round of 70 saw him join Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Francesco Molinari, Justin Thomas, Sungjae Im and Harris English on level par, five strokes behind the summit, but only three off second spot.
World number one Dustin Johnson enjoyed a 68 to move to one under with pre-tournament favourite Jon Rahm at two under despite a disappointing but eminently repairable 72 in his third round.
Oosthuizen produced arguably the shot of the day as a 50-foot eagle putt on 18 saw him sign for a 70 and join Henley (71) and Hughes (68) on five under. The 2010 Open winner partners Hughes in the day's final group at 12.55pm (8.55pm BST).
Richard Bland of England became the oldest player at the age of 48 to hold a share of the halfway lead of the US Open, but dropped from five under to plus one with a round of 77 as too many wayward shots were heavily punished.
US PGA champion Phil Mickelson's hopes of a career grand slam are over for another year after a 76 left him at seven over and out of contention.
US Open third round leaderboard
- -5 M Hughes (Can), L Oosthuizen (SA), R Henley (US)
- -3 R McIlroy (NI), B DeChambeau (US)
- -2 S Scheffler (US), J Rahm (Spa), M Wolff (US)
SUNDAY'S FINAL-ROUND TEE TIMES (Eastern Time – BST+5hrs)
- 9:30 a.m. -- Wilco Nienaber
- 9:41 a.m. -- Fabian Gomez, Jimmy Walker
- 9:52 a.m. -- Matt Jones, Kyle Westmoreland
- 10:03 a.m. -- Phil Mickelson, Greyson Sigg
- 10:14 a.m. -- Taylor Montgomery, Rick Lamb
- 10:25 a.m. -- Tom Hoge, Marc Leishman
- 10:36 a.m. -- Stewart Cink, Hideki Matsuyama
- 10:47 a.m. -- Patrick Reed, Tommy Fleetwood
- 10:58 a.m. -- Wade Ormsby, Troy Merritt
- 11:09 a.m. -- Akshay Bhatia, Patrick Rodgers
- 11:20 a.m. -- Charley Hoffman, Jhonattan Vegas
- 11:31 a.m. -- Rafa Cabrera Bello, Sergio Garcia
- 11:42 a.m. -- Gary Woodland, Edoardo Molinari
- 11:53 a.m. -- Shane Lowry, Kevin Kisner
- 12:04 p.m. -- Adam Hadwin, Dylan Wu
- 12:15 p.m. -- Matt Fitzpatrick, Dylan Frittelli
- 12:26 p.m. -- Bubba Watson, Branden Grace
- 12:37 p.m. -- Rikuya Hoshino, Chez Reavie
- 12:48 p.m. -- Robert MacIntyre, Charl Schwartzel
- 12:59 p.m. -- Adam Scott, Patrick Cantlay
- 1:10 p.m. -- J.T. Poston, Si Woo Kim
- 1:21 p.m. -- Daniel Berger, Joaquin Niemann
- 1:32 p.m. -- Richard Bland, Guido Migliozzi
- 1:43 p.m. -- Lee Westwood, Brian Harman
- 1:54 p.m. -- Lanto Griffin, Chris Baker
- 2:05 p.m. -- Martin Kaymer, Jordan Spieth
- 2:16 p.m. -- Harris English, Justin Thomas
- 2:27 p.m. -- Brooks Koepka, Sungjae Im
- 2:38 p.m. -- Francesco Molinari, Ian Poulter
- 2:49 p.m. -- Paul Casey, Kevin Streelman
- 3 p.m. -- Xander Schauffele, Christiaan Bezuidenhout
- 3:11 p.m. -- Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson
- 3:22 p.m. -- Matthew Wolff, Jon Rahm
- 3:33 p.m. -- Scottie Scheffler, Bryson DeChambeau
- 3:44 p.m. -- Rory McIlroy, Russell Henley
- 3:55 p.m. -- Louis Oosthuizen, Mackenzie Hughes
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