LOUISVILLE, Ky. – On a soggy day at Valhalla, Rory McIlroy put himself in a familiar position: leading the PGA Championship.
The overwhelming favourite from Northern Ireland started on the back side after a 50-minute rain delay Friday, made a couple of early birdies, then claimed the outright lead for the first time when he rolled in a 30-foot eagle putt at the 18th hole.
McIlroy picked up two more birdies in his final three holes for a 4-under 67, sending him to the clubhouse with a two-stroke lead over Ryan Palmer.
Some of the other top contenders – including Lee Westwood and Kevin Chappell, who were tied with Palmer for the lead after the first round – had afternoon tee times.
Tiger Woods also went off late, more concerned about making the cut than getting into contention after opening with a mediocre 74. He was tied for 109th place and in danger of missing the weekend at a major for only the fourth time as a professional.
McIlroy, on the other hand, is at the top of his game. He arrived at Valhalla having won his last two tournaments. He captured the British Open at Royal Liverpool with a wire-to-wire performance, and rallied for a victory at Firestone last weekend.
Midway through the final major of the year, he is once again the guy everyone is chasing.
“I’m feeling good about my game. I’m confident. I’m hitting the ball well for the most part,” McIlroy said. “I’m really in control of my game and my emotions. I need to do that over the weekend as well.”
He dropped a shot with a bogey at the 12th, but birdied two of the next three holes. He seized the outright lead for the first time with the long putt at No. 18 and nearly made another eagle at the par-5 seventh. He stuck a shot from 243 yards to 8 feet, but the putt stayed right of the cup.
McIlroy grimaced and rolled back his head.
He closed with another birdie at the ninth, finishing off his round by curling in a 16-footer that left him at 9-under 133 overall.
Palmer shot 70, staying firmly in the mix at the only major championship that eluded another guy who shared the same name – Arnold Palmer.
“I’m glad to shoot under par,” he said. “That’s all I could ask for today. We’ll go hang out at the house and see where we stand at the end of the day.”
McIlroy is going for his fourth major title at age 25, having already won the PGA Championship at Kiawah in 2012.
Steve Stricker – a 47-year-old, part-time player who was picked as an assistant U.S. Ryder Cup captain this week – showed he’s still got plenty of game. He made four birdies on his first nine holes, giving him a share of the lead until McIlroy claimed it for himself.
His 68 left him four shots off the lead on what was shaping up to be a long day.
Also at 137 were Graham DeLaet (68) and Henrik Stenson (71).
A steady rain forced officials to suspend the round after just 20 minutes because of too much water on the putting surfaces and fairways. Work crews already were using squeegees on the greens when another burst of showers hit Valhalla.
Play was halted as Palmer was playing the first hole. He hung out in the tower with some volunteers, snapping pictures of the water.
“I wasn’t quite sure we should have teed off, to be honest with you,” he said. “You could barely see the fairway.”
There was a chance of more rain in the afternoon, raising the possibility the second round would not be completed Friday.
Adding to the difficulty of a soggy course, players had to contend with mud.
Championship director Kerry Haigh said the ball was to be played as it lies – the players will not be allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls through the green as often happens in regular tour events.
While rain softened the greens, it also made the course longer.
When play resumed, Palmer came up short of the green from out of the rough on the 504-yard second hole, though he pitched to 2 feet to save par.
McIlroy enjoys soft conditions. That was the case at Firestone last week, and he won his first major at rain-softened Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open with a record score of 16-under 268.
Looks like more of the same at damp Valhalla.
© 2014 The Associated Press