Rory McIlroy can still win the FedEx Cup but he knows he’s going to have to start driving the ball at his very best to have any chance of denying Dustin Johnson after being forced to dig deep on the back nine for the second day running in the Tour Championship.
McIlroy must win in Atlanta and hope that points leader Johnson finishes no better than tied second at East Lake.
A three under par back nine helped McIlroy card a level par 70 and to into the weekend “just” five shots behind Johnson (67) on two under par.
But rather than putting, it’s driving that’s been giving McIlroy some trouble in Georgia on a course where narrow fairways and thick rough have kept the cream of the PGA Tour very much on the back foot.
Tied 12th of 29 for driving accuracy (Jason Day withdrew with an injury), McIlroy said: “Like any golf course, if you hit fairways and you hit greens, it's not that difficult, but when you start to get yourself out of position, especially as they've let this Bermuda rough just get up a little bit, it just takes all control out of your hands with your second shot.
“So I've only hit basically half of the fairways this week. When you do that, you're going to struggle.
“But I have been aggressive off the tee. I've been hitting driver quite a lot. There was some holes where I was hitting drivers where Paul (Casey) was just hitting a three-wood. But I feel like I've been driving the ball really well the last couple of weeks and feel confident with that club. So I'm going to keep hitting it.
“It's been difficult. I feel like I've left a lot of shots out there this week. I'm still up there in terms of position, (six) shots off the leader, but I feel like I can go out there and shoot a good one tomorrow and at least give myself a chance for Sunday.”
Ranked ninth for strokes gained putting, McIlroy said: “I’m going to hit some balls. I felt like my putting was actually quite good. I missed a couple, but I held some nice ones as well. Yeah, I wasn't comfortable with my swing all day. Even in the warmup this morning on the range, just didn't feel quite comfortable. So I need to go work on a couple of things.”
He’s well aware what he has to do to win the FedEx Cup and knows he can’t afford a repeat of Friday, when he bogeyed three of his first five holes and followed a birdie at the par-five sixth with a bogey at the eighth, where he tugged his approach into a lake.
“Yeah, the front nine. I let a bad warmup filter into the rest of my game, and I was thinking about it but then started to hit some better shots sort of around the middle of the round which gave me a little bit of confidence,” he said.
Adding the the “may need to alter my game plan a little bit off the tee” he said: “I need to win, and I just need someone to play as good as Dustin this week. That's what I need to happen. Yeah, I'm aware of the scenario.
“I’m pretty happy with how I putted it the last couple of days. That was good. Iron play, I needed to work on. I need to go and figure out -- I've sort of got it going both ways with the irons. It's okay if you've got it going one way, but if you've got it going both, there's a few things in your head. So I just need to work on that.”
Johnson bogeyed the 18th and leads by just one from Kevin Chappell on seven under with Kevin Kisner (70) and Hideki Matsuyama (71) tied third, four shots off the lead on three under.
McIlroy knows Saturday is key but he’s also aware that he may pay for his efforts in the Ryder Cup next week.
“It's been a long stretch, “ he said. “This is my fourth week in five and my fifth week in six next week. So I think it's a balance of, obviously, trying to get ready and making sure your game is sharp, but at the same time, trying to save yourself.
“I’m more than likely going to play five matches next week, which is going to be a long week. I'm going to have to reserve as much energy as I can for that.”