McIlroy will face stiff test at Valhalla

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The crush that comes with contention can be a heavy burden for a golfer. It is the place they strive to get to, and yet one that is fraught with all manner of obstacles.

The pressure of sustaining excellence. The knowledge that opportunities for victory, especially in golf, can be fleeting. And the difficulty of capitalizing on those chances.

Rory McIlroy is carrying that load like it is a bag of popcorn. He is strutting around Valhalla Golf Club with his chest puffed out, with nothing to get in his way.

For a month, he's been in this position, leading at the Open Championship the entire way, coming from behind in the final group a week ago in Ohio at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, and now leading the PGA Championship.

If this is a problem, well, it's a mighty good one to have.

"Loving it. I'm loving it," McIlroy said early Saturday evening, another major championship trophy within his grasp. "It's where I want to be. It's the best place to be in the golf tournament. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

A 4-under-par 67 on Saturday has McIlroy atop the leaderboard again, one day away from some pretty nice history. Winning back-to-back major championships is rare, not accomplished since Padraig Harrington did it in 2008. But winning four total by age 25? Hello, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.

McIlroy has worn out a path to the media center and television interview locations in recent weeks, combining to shoot 30-under par in his past seven major championship rounds, sandwiched around his victory last week.

And while he has had a few tense moments and wayward shots, it is likely noticeable only because he is so much in the spotlight these days.

"Obviously it has its stresses at some point, but at the same time it's where you want to be," he said. "It's the position you want to be in. We don't practice all these hours and grind on the range and put so much work into it to be teeing off in the middle of the pack on Sunday of a major. That's where you want to be.

"It brings its nerves and stress and anxiety. That's what we work so hard for. If I went the whole season without feeling that, then I would be obviously very disappointed. So stressful at times, but you have got to enjoy it because it's the best position to be in a golf tournament."

The difference here, however, is that McIlroy has plenty of pursuers breathing the hot, humid Louisville air on his neck. There are 18 players within 6 strokes of the lead heading into the final round.

Unlike his U.S. Open victory at Congressional in 2011 (a waltz), his 2012 PGA Championship win at Kiawah Island (a back-nine blowout) and last month's Open Championship triumph at Royal Liverpool (a comfortable advantage), McIlroy has little room for error here.

He will play the final round with unheralded Bernd Wiesberger of Austria, who said he has surprised himself by getting into this position, just a shot out of the lead and in the last group with McIlroy.

Just 2 shots back is Rickie Fowler -- who beat McIlroy in a playoff for his only PGA Tour victory two years ago in Charlotte -- this year's constant contender in the biggest tournaments. Fowler has gone T-5, T-2, T-2 in the majors, and might be due.

Then there areĀ  Phil Mickelson and Jason Day just 3 shots back, lurking on a course that is giving up birdies by the bushel and seemingly won't allow anyone to sit back and protect.

"You have to go out there and make birdies," Mickelson said. "You just have to get a hot hand."

McIlroy has been on fire for a month, dominating courses with excellent driving that has put him in position for short irons to greens. But it's more than just that. McIlroy has hit a few errant ones this week as well, a good example coming at the fourth hole on Saturday, where he severely pulled his tee shot and somehow managed to make a par. That he followed it on the next hole with a birdie is a big factor in prevailing.

Then there is his putting, long considered the so-called weakness in his game. Truth be told, for much of his eight-year professional career, McIlroy has simply been average on the greens. Putting has not saved him as much as it could, and only when he's gotten hot on putting surfaces has he stood out. Streaky, you might call it.

"He's putting so much better," said Justin Rose. "His stroke looks so much better than it did about a year ago. I don't know what changes he's made, but his stroke looks great now. No matter how well you play, you've always got to convert on the greens."

When things got a bit edgy on Saturday, McIlroy managed to birdie three of the last four holes. His advantage this time is just 1 shot over Wiesberger, but 1 is better than none.

"I've got one more day to give it everything I have," McIlroy said. "Of course it takes a toll. It takes a toll mentally. Physically as well because you're not teeing off until pretty late and you're not getting back to your house ... it puts you out of your routine a bit.

"But hopefully that won't play any sort of part."

So far, McIlroy has handled all of it just fine.

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