It was two years ago that Rory McIlroy, two days short of his 21st birthday, announced himself to the golf world with a scorching 62 to win the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte.
He might just do it again Sunday.
Not the 62, probably, but the victory – which would make him the first double winner in the event’s 10-year history. McIlroy surged to within two strokes of the lead Saturday, shooting a 66 that began with four birdies in the first five holes. He trails Webb Simpson by two strokes entering the final 18.
“I feel like I’ve got another one of those scores in me,” McIlroy said, and he’s the one who would know. He shot a 66 two years ago on Saturday, too. Then he followed with that 62, which still stands as the course record at Quail Hollow, and finished with six straight “threes” on his scorecard – including a 42-foot birdie putt to end things at No.18.
At 23, McIlroy is already one of the best golfers in the world. He’s No.2 in the latest rankings and will be No.1 again if he finishes tied for seventh or better at this tournament.
The native of Northern Ireland won the 2011 U.S. Open in record form after several near-misses at majors, including a famous back-nine flameout at the 2011 Masters. He has been thought of as a prodigy for a long time. McIlroy said Saturday the longest drive he ever hit in competition was 405 yards.
He was 15 at the time.
McIlroy is still young enough to express a child’s delight in the surprise visit his parents have bestowed on him in Charlotte. They came for his birthday and hope to see him win Sunday.
“I walked in for dinner and they were sitting there,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy has improved steadily this week, going 70-68-66 through three rounds. He’s got the sort of golf game you would draw up if you had to start one from scratch – great swing, great putting, great everything, really.
McIlroy said he thought “15- or 16-under” par would likely win the tournament. He would get to 16 under with a 68 Sunday. That’s well within reach. But McIlroy hasn’t always played well in Charlotte – he missed the cut in 2011 after winning the year before.
McIlroy has gotten so good so fast, though, that his name on the leader board can draw both a crowd and some inner turmoil from some of his peers. When asked Saturday if he thought his name on the first page of a leader board makes other players “shake in their boots a little bit,” McIlroy said: “I hope so. I’m not so sure. I’m just one of a bunch of guys that can go out and win there tomorrow. But maybe.”
McIlroy has a sense of humor, too. He hit fan Ryan Hagadorn of Charlotte on the 18th hole with an errant drive. So McIlroy got out one of his golf gloves, printed “Sorry!” in big black letters and gave it to Hagadorn.
If I were a betting man, I would guess McIlroy is about to make a lot more people sorry on Sunday.