When Rory McIlroy knocked in an 8-foot putt for birdie on the par-3 13th hole at Quail Hollow Club on Saturday, he allowed an enticing thought to enter his head.
“Fifty-nine was in my mind,” he said.
At that point, McIlroy was 8-under par, rolling in just about everything and well on his way toward the best round in Wells Fargo Championship history.
When he was finished, he came up short of that 59 (the PGA Tour’s lowest-ever score), missing a shot at golf history but creating plenty of the same for Quail Hollow.
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McIlroy shot a tournament record 11-under 61, putting on full display the skills that have made him the top-ranked player in the world.
“So I was a little disappointed with not finishing off the way I wanted,” said McIlroy, who is trying to become the first two-time winner of the Wells Fargo tournament. “But, you know, still a great round.”
McIlroy broke or tied four other course records Saturday, including lowest 54-hole score (198), lowest third-round score, most birdies in one round (10) and consecutive birdies (five).
His 61 left him 18 under for the tournament, four shots clear of Charlotte’s Webb Simpson, who saw McIlroy breeze past him despite shooting a 4-under 68. Robert Streb, who started the day tied for the lead with Simpson, is third at 11 under, with Brendan Steele and Patrick Rodgers tied for fourth at 10-under.
McIlroy’s performance was nothing short of masterful. He broke the course record of 62 that he shared with Charlotte-resident Brendon de Jonge. McIlroy’s 62 came during the final round of the 2010 Wells Fargo, when he overwhelmed the field to win for the first time in his career.
“Five years of experience,” McIlroy, now 26, said of the difference between his game today and 2010. “Five years of being out here, competing, winning majors, losing majors. That’s the biggest thing.”
McIlroy’s career is in full flight now. He’s been No. 1 since last August and arrived in Charlotte with the kind of momentum that comes with recently finishing fourth at the Masters, winning the World Golf Championships Match Play and a tying for eighth at the Players Championship.
“It’s hard to explain, hard to describe,” said McIlroy. “You’re just letting it happen. You never quite know when youre going to get into the zone or out of it. But you realize it and that’s when you just go with it.”
McIlroy, who started the day three shots behind Simpson and Streb, had a bogey-free day. The only shot he was really disappointed with was off the tee at the par-3 17th, which he left 37 feet to the right of the hole. His par would halt a string of five consecutive birdies.
McIlroy wasn’t great off the tee, hitting eight of 14 fairways. But he hit 15 greens and had just 23 putts. The longest putt he made was 14 feet, 5 inches.
Playing two groups behind McIlroy, Simpson also birdied the 13th hole, taking him to 13 under for tournament. Simpson hadn’t looked at the scoreboard for several holes, but figured he was at least tied for the lead. When he glanced at the scoreboard, Simpson was surprised to see he was trailing McIlroy by three strokes.
“I was like, ‘Oh, really, like on this golf course?’” said Simpson, who shared the second-round lead with Streb.
Simpson was able to stay close to McIlroy with a well-timed eagle on No. 15. He could have been that much closer had he not bogeyed the 18th.
“I wanted to be more aggressive on 15,” said Simpson. “There’s no point in me trying to just hang on coming in what (McIlroy) did.”
The McIlroy-Simpson pairing, the final one of the tournament, goes off the first tee at 1:45 p.m. Sunday.
“He’s the No. 1 player in the world,” Simpson said. “He’s won golf tournaments everywhere. So he’s certainly comfortable in this position.”
McIlroy said he had originally not planned on playing at Quail Hollow, with the date falling at a particularly busy time of the season. Now he’s 18 holes away from perhaps making more history in Charlotte.
“There’s a lot to think about,” he said. “There’s a reason I added this tournament to my schedule. I love the place. I’m playing well, so there was no reason not to go. For the most part – at least for now – the decision is paying off.”
Like a broken record
Tournament records broken by Rory McIlroy on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Championship:
Lowest round: 61
Lowest 54 holes: 198 (-18)
Lowest third round score: -18
Most birdies in 1 round: 11
Most consecutive birdies (tied): 5