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Since Rory McIlroy called off his wedding to tennis pro Caroline Wozniacki, he's been a tour de force on the course. He broke off the engagement in late May, and less than three months later he is 36 holes away from a third consecutive tour victory and second consecutive major victory. He's the leader of this PGA Championship by one shot heading into Saturday, and McIlroy has become a Tigeresque front-runner.
So is it that simple? Is hitting the little white ball that much easier without the ol' ball and chain? Was he spending more time selecting china patterns and bed sheets than hitting the range? The bachelor was asked Friday whether there is a correlation between his recent lights-out play and his recent single status. "I think it has happened to me for the better," McIlroy said. "I've put a little bit more time into my golf and it's refocused me in a way. … I guess, what else do I have to do? I get up in the morning, I go to the golf course, I go to the gym. It's just my life at the minute, you know. It obviously works pretty well, so I'm going to keep doing it. I've just really buried myself in my golf game." Burying the competition has been the byproduct. McIlroy fired an opening-round 66 here to sit one shot off the lead heading into Friday, then backed it up with a 67 in what was the most challenging playing conditions of the day.
An early-morning deluge left Valhalla Golf Club soaked for McIlroy's 8:35 a.m. tee time, which ultimately was pushed back to 9:25. McIlroy and playing partners Bubba Watson and Martin Kaymer began their round in steady rain, and it continued to drizzle most of their time on the course.
Watson looked and sounded like a petulant diva the entire round, whining to caddy/whipping boy/candidate for sainthood Ted Scott. Hopelessly burdened by being the only golfer in history to have to play in the rain, Watson splashed his way to a surly 72 and declined to speak to the media afterward. McIlroy ignored Bubba's tantrum and serenely stuck to his game. "Look, hey, I've complained after a lot of shots before and everyone out here moans about something," McIlroy said. "It's just part of it. I don't really pay any attention to my playing partners that much anyway. I could see how some people could maybe be affected by it. … I've been guilty of it before and a lot of other players on tour have done the same thing. But it didn't affect me."
McIlroy was 1-over through his first three soggy holes, but then recorded two birdies and an eagle on the next six to take the lead. The question now is whether he'll ever relinquish it.
Rory's ears stick out at an almost elfin fashion beneath his flat-brim Nike hat, but the man has been a cold-blooded crusher when possessing a lead in the last couple of years. He wired the field at Hoylake last month to win the British Open, and in his previous major victories (the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA) he was unchallenged in the final round. He won both of those two events by eight shots.
There was a time when McIlroy was a tentative leader, and he learned painfully from it. That was the final round of the 2011 Masters, when he had the lead and a chance to win his first major and instead shot a ghastly 80. "I wasn't quite comfortable in that position [at that Masters]," McIlroy said. "It's taken me a couple of years to grow into that where I am comfortable, and my mindset has stayed the same since that day at Augusta. If I'm two ahead I'm going to try to get three ahead, and if I'm three ahead I'm going to try to get four ahead, and if I'm four ahead I'm going to try to get five ahead. I'm just going to try and keep the pedal down and get as far ahead as possible."
Seeing how low McIlroy can go this weekend could provide an element of suspense. Or maybe this one won't be a walkover. He has some talented pursuers capable of keeping it competitive, and Valhalla has a history of drama. It took a playoff to decide its two previous PGA champions.
If I were Lee Westwood, Jim Furyk, Jason Day or Rickie Fowler, I'd try to set up McIlroy with a whirlwind romance this weekend. If he's getting lucky in Kentucky, it might give them a chance to win. If not, this tournament may already be over.
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