Rory McIlroy used a bulletproof short game to go into the weekend just three shots behind leader Jimmy Walker in the weather-delayed WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron.
Ranked first for scrambling — he saved par 12 times out of 14 over the first two days — the 28-year old shot a one under par 69 when he chipped in from the back of the 16th for a birdie after a stop-start day at Firestone Country Club.
Torrential rain stopped afternoon play for 3 hours and 23 minutes, and while McIlroy complained that his threeball with Jordan Spieth (70) and Jason Day (66) went flat on the back nine, he was pleased to shoot in the red and put himself in contention for his first win of the season.
"I fully expected to come here and play well," McIlroy said after a round featuring two birdies and one bogey. "I felt like my game has been pretty good and coming to a golf course I love. I really love this place.
"I've won here, I've played well here. So yeah, to be T3 and have a chance going into the weekend, I'm happy with that."
He had little luck on the greens — the longest putt he made was a four-and-a-half footer at the par-five second for his opening birdie.
But his short game was excellent and apart from a bogey at the ninth, where he was forced to chip out of the trees after a rare wild drive, he saved par every time and even holed an unlikely chip from the back of the 16th for his lone birdie of the back nine.
"It's just a continuation of what I was doing at Birkdale," he said. "I scrambled well at Birkdale, I battled well and saved myself when I didn't hit very good shots and I have been able to do that this week as well.
"My bunker play has been good the last few weeks so I feel that when your short game is like that you can go for a few more pins because you are confident with your short game and know that even if you do miss, you can get it up and down."
Spieth finished with back to back birdies for a 70 and Day shot 66 to share sixth with Charley Hoffman, Adam Hadwin, Russell Knox and Alex Noren on three-under par.
US PGA champion Walker posted a 65 to set the pace on seven-under par and lead by two strokes from Thomas Pieters (70) with McIlroy tied for third with Zach Johnson (67) and Hideki Matsuyama (67).
“This is real important for me, it hasn't been a lot of fun this year. I had a few okay finishes, a lot of 30s and high 20s finishes, just stuff that's not moving me around. But it's nice to see some putts go in and make some solid swings and keep my rounds going, make some par putts, just the stuff I haven't been doing.
“Did I see this coming? I mean, we're only halfway - there's still a lot of golf on a hard golf course, but I know it's there. It's just a matter of it happening. I've been back to work, I've been hitting balls, which is something I hadn't been able to do before.
“It did feel like a marathon. I'm still kind of waking up early after the last two weeks playing overseas, but a great day. I played solid, made some putts, got a few breaks and just a solid day of golf.”
“It can't be any longer than today, I think - we were out from first daylight to now. I played decent. Again, I think I hit plenty of greens, a bit less than yesterday. The driver was still a little bit off but ball‑striking's been good, and it was the same today. I missed a couple of short ones on 17 and 18, but I’m rolling the putter nicely, so I’m looking forward to this weekend.
“I can get too hard on myself, I get really hard on myself if I don't hit the perfect shot. So it’s just accepting the half decent ones as good ones, I guess - just staying a bit more even through the round maybe. I'm putting well and my ball striking's good, so that always helps to shoot good scores.
“That was pretty good on 10. It had just rained so the bunkers were quite firm which always helps. Firm sand is a bit easier to hit out of and I had to shape it around the tree to a back right pin. Maybe it was a good thing I didn't look at the pin position, just hit it to the back. I knew it was going to spin a bit, so I'll watch it on TV later.”
“It was a little long but you know, these things happen. August in Ohio, the storms roll through pretty regularly, it’s nothing new to us but it was tough. I think once we got back out there after the delay, I think everyone was feeling a little bit flat.
“The players, the spectators, everything just sort of felt a little flat. I didn't help myself by missing a few chances as soon as we came back out here. I needed to just try and keep myself going and luckily I found one birdie coming in. It wasn't the way I wanted to make birdie but any way will do. So it was a decent score at the end of the day and in the mix going into the weekend.”
133 Jimmy Walker 68 65
135 Thomas Pieters 65 70
136 Zach Johnson 69 67; Rory McIlroy 67 69; Hideki Matsuyama 69 67
137 Charley Hoffman 68 69; Adam Hadwin 68 69; Russell Knox 66 71; Jordan Spieth 67 70; 137 Jason Day 71 66; Alex Noren 69 68
138 Tommy Fleetwood 70 68
139 Paul Casey 70 69; Harold Varner III 70 69; Charl Schwartzel 70 69; Adam Scott 68 71; Kevin Chappell 72 67; Thongchai Jaidee 71 68; Daniel Berger 71 68; Ross Fisher 67 72; Scott Hend 70 69; Hudson Swafford 70 69; Renato Paratore 71 68; Xander Schauffele 70 69
140 Bill Haas 70 70; Kevin Kisner 67 73; Jhonattan Vegas 69 71; Branden Grace 71 69; Brooks Koepka 71 69
141 Justin Rose 72 69; Rickie Fowler 70 71; Brendan Steele 73 68; Bubba Watson 67 74; Andres Romero 68 73
142 J.B. Holmes 69 73; Si Woo Kim 73 69; Ryan Moore 73 69; Henrik Stenson 72 70; Bernd Wiesberger 70 72
143 Paul Lawrie 69 74; Thorbjørn Olesen 73 70; Rod Pampling 73 70; Fabrizio Zanotti 74 69; Justin Thomas 73 70; Sergio Garcia 72 71; Matt Kuchar 71 72; Kyle Stanley 69 74; Emiliano Grillo 72 71; Tyrrell Hatton 72 71; Dustin Johnson 68 75; Phil Mickelson 71 72
144 Matthew Fitzpatrick 73 71; Satoshi Kodaira 73 71; Jon Rahm 67 77; Marc Leishman 73 71; Jason Dufner 76 68; Wesley Bryan 72 72; Francesco Molinari 71 73; Brian Harman 70 74; Sam Brazel 74 70; Bryson DeChambeau 75 69;
145 Patrick Reed 75 70; Hideto Tanihara 74 71
146 Louis Oosthuizen 74 72
147 Andy Sullivan 72 75; Jeunghun Wang 74 73; Pat Perez 72 75
148 Mackenzie Hughes 74 74; Shaun Norris 71 77
149 Russell Henley 75 74; Rafa Cabrera Bello 76 73; Chris Wood 75 74
150 Lee Westwood 72 78; Danny Willett 76 74
151 Gary Woodland 74 77
154 Billy Horschel 76 78