LOUISVILLE, Ky. — And down the stretch they come!
OK, we’re not contractually obligated to say that just because the 96th PGA Championship is being played near the twin spires of Churchill Downs, site of the Kentucky Derby, the world’s most famous horse race.
We can only say that, and mean it, with the cooperation of the field gathered at Valhalla Golf Club, a venue that has produced final-round drama each of the first two times it’s hosted the PGA Championship, both requiring a playoff.
Plenty more drama seems to be ordered up for Sunday, and we easily could see another playoff. With five players getting their hands on at least a share of the lead during Saturday’s third round — for a few minutes they were all deadlocked — and 18 players separated by six shots, what had been a leisurely four-day walk has turned into a full-on sprint to the finish.
One of the pace-setters comes as no surprise, since Rory McIlroy came to Kentucky favored to win, having captured two straight tournaments and the world’s No. 1 ranking. The other, though, is a total surprise. Raise your hand if you’d ever heard of Bernd Wiesberger before Saturday.
They’ll be paired in the final twosome of the final round, with McIlroy holding a one-shot lead at 13-under par after shooting a 67. He birdied three of his final four holes Saturday to get there, but was actually upstaged by Wiesberger, who finished with birdies on his final three holes, two that could have been eagles.
“I feel like I’m really confident right now no matter who is on that leader board,” McIlroy said. “I feel like I have a pretty good chance in beating them.”
If the final round is anything like Saturday — the scoring average of 69.5 was the lowest in tournament history — we’re in for some show. As it should be, on the final day at the season’s final major championship.
“I noticed a few guys in front of me were sort of making a run on the back nine, noticed Phil [Mickelson] was making a few birdies and Rickie [Fowler] was obviously making a charge and Bernd Wiesberger, obviously,” McIlroy said. “I knew I needed to do something in the last few holes, and to pull a few birdies out like that was really pleasing. Happy that I kept the lead.”
If McIlroy on Sunday is playing the role of Tiger Woods — who won the 2000 PGA at Valhalla as the world’s top-ranked player — then Wiesberger will wear the hat of Bob May, who was a virtual unknown who went toe-to-toe with Woods 14 years ago in an epic final-day duel. Wiesberger is a 28-year-old from Austria who has two European Tour victories to his credit, both in 2012. He came into the week ranked 70th in the world.
Consider this his global golf introduction.
“I know what I’m capable of doing. I know if I drive the ball well and don’t get ahead of myself, I can play good golf,” said Wiesberger, who missed the cut this year at the US Open and Open Championship. “I’ve never played well in the majors. I’ve played well in the other bigger events in Europe and won a couple. It’s not the same, but you kind of get a feeling for what you have to do, how you have to handle yourself. It’s just on a different level.”
Wiesberger didn’t seem intimidated by much of anything Saturday. Paired with Mickelson — who birdied four of his last five holes, shot 67, and is tied with Jason Day (69) for fourth at 10 under — Wiesberger played a bogey-free round of precision golf. He missed just two fairways, missed just two greens in regulation, and took 28 putts in a smooth 65, which ties the low round of the tournament.
Saving the best for last, Wiesberger birdied each of the last three holes, all with highlight approach shots. He stuffed his second to 2½ feet at the par-4 16th, then nearly holed his 8 iron at No. 17, the ball finishing 6 inches away. At the par-5 18th, after his second shot came up short of the green, he almost chipped in for eagle, again leaving himself a 6-inch birdie putt. Faced with major championship pressure, 6 inches for birdie is a pretty lead-pipe lock.
They won’t be the only two waking up on Sunday thinking they can win. Fowler closed with a birdie, capping a bogey-free 67 that left him in third, two shots behind. Fowler has finished in the top five of all three majors this year: a tie for fifth at the Masters, and runner-up finishes at the US Open and Open Championship. He’ll be paired Sunday with Mickelson, his frequent partner in their standard practice-round money matches.
“Obviously there’s a lot of guys playing well right now and we have our work cut out for us,” said Fowler. “We’re going to have some fun, and hopefully him and I are going to get things rolling like we do on Tuesdays against the boys. We’ll have a good time, that’s for sure.”
They won’t be the only ones. Buckle up. Sunday at Valhalla is here.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.