Golf: McIlroy grabs CJ Cup lead in bid to regain top ranking

Rory McIlroy reacting to a missed putt on the 17th green during the third round of The CJ Cup in South Carolina. USA TODAY SPORTS

WASHINGTON - Rory McIlroy, chasing a title repeat and a return to the world No. 1 spot, fired two eagles in a four-under 67 on Saturday to seize a one-shot lead at the US PGA Tour’s CJ Cup.

McIlroy The Northern Irishman picked up five strokes on the three par-fives at Congaree Golf Club in Ridgeland, South Carolina, bagging eagles at the fourth and 12th holes.

The four-time Major winner from Northern Ireland had a one-stroke lead over fifth-ranked Spaniard Jon Rahm, South Korean Lee Kyoung-hoon and American Kurt Kitayama.

“The golf course definitely played tougher,” McIlroy said of the par-71 Congaree Golf Club layout in Ridgeland, South Carolina.

His 2021 CJ Cup title last year came in Las Vegas, with this year 2022 marking the third straight year that the event was moved from South Korea because of coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions.

“Some of the hole locations were in dicey spots, and as the day goes on the course dries out, it just gets firmer and faster. Sometimes, when you’re out of position, bogey is a decent score,” added McIlroy, who called his inward run “scrappy”.

Despite those errant shots coming in, McIlroy the 33-year-old got the job done on the par fives.

McIlroy followed a birdie at the par-five second with a bogey from the waste bunker at the third.

He responded with his eagle at the fourth, where his 227-yard second shot from the fairway settled two and a half feet from the pin.

He rolled in a 10-foot birdie at the par-three seventh and eagled No. 12, where he rolled in a 32-foot putt from off the green after bombing his tee shot 376 yards down the fairway.

“I think the eagle on 12 was the most fun, just after how far I hit the tee shot,” he said, but added: “The six-iron into four as well – it landed absolutely perfect.”

McIlroy kept things rolling with a par save at the next hole 13, where he went from a waste bunker alongside the fairway to a greenside bunker but blasted out to four feet.

A bogey at the par-three 14th, where he missed the green and failed to get his second shot on the putting surface, dropped McIlroy into a tie for the lead with Kitayama, but he rolled in an eight-foot birdie at No. 16 to regain the solo lead.

He bogeyed No. 17, but so did Kitayama behind him, and had the lead after a par at the last hole18.

Kitayama, who shared the overnight lead with former world No. 1 Rahm, had three birdies and two bogeys in his one-under effort while Lee climbed the leaderboard with a five-under par 66.

Rahm (70), who had rolled in 125 feet of putts in setting a course-record 62 on Friday, endured frustration on the greens, his day including a pair of three-putt bogeys. AFP

Disappointed by back-to-back bogeys at 10 and 11, Rahm kept his composure and was rewarded with three birdies the rest of the way, including an impressive effort at the par-four 17th, which yielded just three birdies on the day.

“It was an odd round,” said Rahm, who is coming off a DP World Tour victory two weeks ago in Spain. “I played the first seven and a half holes great.

“It was very difficult to leave yourself a putt you could be aggressive with. For those first seven holes I was just being defensive the whole time.”

Rahm said he was proud of his finish, especially a par save at 16 and his birdie at 17.

“Hopefully I can get off to a good start tomorrow and post a good round,” he said. AFP

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