RIDGELAND, SC — Rory McIlroy had two eagles that made the score look better than it felt Saturday. A one-shot lead at the CJ Cup in South Carolina was all it took to put him in position for his third win of the year.
This comes with a bonus: the chance to return to No. 1 in the world.
McIlroy can reclaim the top spot in two scenarios: if he wins and Scotty Scheffler finishes in a tie for second, or if McIlroy finishes alone in second and Scheffler finishes 34th alone.
This is nothing new for McIlroy, who reached the top of the world rankings 10 years ago, although it is not unusual. It’s not a distraction because he’s been there eight times before — not with Jon Rahm among the shots behind him.
“Ultimately, I just want to win this golf tournament. If I win the golf tournament, everything takes care of itself,” McIlroy said after his 4-under 67.
“So for me, I’ve got to go out there tomorrow, set a score for myself that I want to hit, try to do that,” he said. “Focusing on that, we hope this leads to two things, a trophy and to the top of the world rankings.”
Rahm fell back five shots at a time and rallied to save what felt like an all-day battle with Congaree. He wound up with a 70 and was one shot behind Kurt Kitayama (70) and KH Lee (66).
The eagles made all the difference, and they were vintage McIlroy. He drilled a drive on the par-5 fourth and left a 6-iron that held the slope perfectly and rolled to 2 feet. On the par-5 12th, he smashed his drive 376 yards and rolled it 30 feet short of the green into the tightly cut grass.
Which was his favorite?
“It’s good when you get that question,” he said, sitting on 12 and how fun it was to hit the ball that far.
The rest of the round was an even mix of good birdies and slippery bogeys.
“They took those two holes and I was even par for the rest of the round. I felt a little scrappy going in, but I did enough to hang in there and hit a solid score,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy was 13-under 200.
Rahm started the second lap with the lead. McIlroy was five shots behind when he made eagle on No. 12.
But the big Spaniard was strong going into Gibraltar at Congare, picking up birdies with two fine boundary shots to make a good escape on the 16th.
“A lot of battle today; I’m proud of it,” Rahm said. But I just stayed on my game and tried to get some birdies in and put myself in position for tomorrow.”
The only disappointment was that the power team didn’t make it into the final group with McIlroy for a sleepy tournament in the Low Country.
Lee matched the low round of the day on some challenging tees, moving back and some pins in dangerous spots. He made an improvement on the 17th hole this week at Congare, which was a tough one. Lee four-putted — the last three putts from 5 feet — for double bogey Friday. This time he made one of the three birds.
“Much better than yesterday,” he said.
Kitayama, the most ambitious of the contenders, is a 29-year-old Californian who spent two unsuccessful years on the Korn Yachting Tour and then four years toiling across Asia and Europe, winning three times.
He battled Rahm at the Mexican Open and finished one back. He finished one behind Xander Schauffele at the Scottish Open. Saturday was the first time he had a share of the weekend lead on the PGA Tour, and he held his own.
He was tied for the lead until his 65-footer on the 17th green ran about 7 feet into the cup and made his return for par.
Aaron Wise, like Rahm, had to put together a game that didn’t feel like it was there. He had a string of bogeys down the middle of the back nine but scraped the pars for a 71 and put him three shots back of the group.
Tom Kim had a 69 and was four shots back in his bid for a third win before turning 21.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.