In golf, some leads are taken, and some are stolen. What happened to Rory McIlroy on Saturday at the Memorial Tournament? That might qualify as highway robbery.
It would be a lie if McIlroy told you he intended to wind up holding a share of the 54-hole lead at Muirfield Village on Saturday afternoon. No, no part of McIlroy’s Saturday involved dominating the field or executing his shots at a markedly higher degree than those around him. What allowed Rory to survive through a grueling third round was much simpler than that: it was perseverance.
Several times on Saturday afternoon, McIlroy needed long par putts just to keep himself afloat. One such putt came as he turned to the back nine trailing the tournament leader, Hideki Matsuyama, by four strokes. Another came on the 18th green, as he found himself clinging to a spot at the top of a suddenly wide-open leaderboard.
And it wasn’t just on the green. There were fortunate breaks in the 11th and 18th fairways, smart calls off dangerous tees on Nos. 14 and 16, and even a chip-in birdie on the 12th — all of which played out in McIlroy’s favor.
Now he heads into Sunday at the Memorial Tournament in a three-way tie for the lead. He will tee off on Sunday afternoon in the final pairing, with opportunity to clear one notable omission off his PGA Tour resume: a win at Jack’s Place. That it would come at what is widely accepted as the toughest test on the Tour schedule, and two weeks before the U.S. Open? Well, that’s just gravy.
So, can Rory break through in a big way? Below, we lay out three reasons why Sunday at the Memorial is McIlroy’s day, and three reasons why it might not be.
Why Rory McIlroy will win the Memorial on Sunday
1. He’s finally feeling himself
He said it himself. His game wasn’t in the proper shape heading into the PGA Championship. If we’re being honest, Rory said, it’s been up and down dating all the way back to the end of 2022. (Hence why he found himself in Phil Mickelson’s Twitter crosshairs on Friday.)
But now, McIlroy says he can feel his game returning to him.
“I’m feeling more comfortable than I felt at Oak Hill,” McIlroy said. “I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent there. It feels better. I feel like I’m not fighting the clubface as much as I have been. I’m able to have a little bit more trust in it.”
Trust is a big deal for a ball-striker like Rory, particularly when you consider the punishment that joins missing the center of the clubface at a place like Muirfield Village. He’s still not fully back, but a player of Rory’s caliber finding fairways and getting hot with the putter? Look out.
2. The rest of the field is falling apart
Saturday at the Memorial was, to put it charitably, a bloodbath. Hideki Matsuyama looked like he was cruising to a blowout victory at about 3 p.m. local time. But by the time the clock struck 4 p.m., he’d made three straight bogeys, a triple, and another bogey to drop more than four strokes off the lead.
David Lipsky led by two strokes as McIlroy walked from the 18th green to the scorer’s tent at Muirfield Village Saturday. By the time he emerged to do an interview with CBS’s Amanda Balionis-Renner, he and Lipsky were tied for the lead.
Further back, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm and Justin Suh each ejected on Saturday afternoon. The fault for the high scores was the golf course, which punished even near-misses with a fury. That has become something of a theme recently on the PGA Tour.
“Goodness gracious,” said Keegan Bradley. “I feel like I’ve been playing a U.S. Open for three months. Really.”
Ultimately, the course and the ejections led to a power vacuum atop the leaderboard. McIlroy might not have realized it until after, but he was the ideal person to fill it.
3. Jack is rooting for him.
Yeah, Jack is supposed to be a neutral observer. And yeah, as the tournament host, it’s not like he can do anything to help Rory win.
But this is Jack’s tournament, and on Saturday, it was clear that of all the players Nicklaus could be giving a congratulatory handshake on Sunday afternoon, McIlroy is the one he would enjoy most.
“Rory’s a terrific player,” Nicklaus said at the end of Saturday’s CBS broadcast. “We would love to have him win.”
If there were ever a time for Rory to seize back his title as the game’s most prolific star, it would be at the GOAT’s house, above a crowded leaderboard, and in a tournament in which he seized an opportunity at contention from thin-air.
Why Rory won’t win on Sunday
1. He’s still not hitting it well enough
Let’s be clear, he’s hitting it much better than he was at the Masters or even the PGA Championship. But he’s still not hitting it as well as he needs to be hitting it to win a significant golf tournament.
On Saturday, McIlroy lost 1.72 strokes to the field on his approach shots. The rest of his numbers have been buffeted by a conservative strategy to minimize mistakes, which has been smart for keeping him in contention, but may prove difficult for actually closing out the tournament.
And, if not for a few near-misses (on the aforementioned 11th and 18th fairways), his score might have been a handful of strokes worse. There’s a belief that those are the breaks you need to win, but there’s also one that good luck doesn’t stick around forever on hard golf courses.
2. He’s not the only big name suddenly in contention
Just before he went off the air Saturday, CBS lead analyst Trevor Immelman offered a concerning stat for McIlroy’s chances of clinging to a tournament lead Sunday with anything less than his best stuff.
“There are … 22 players within three strokes of the lead at the 54-hole mark,” Immelman said. “That’s incredible.”
He’s not kidding. Twenty-two players shows how much parity there is at the Memorial, but it also shows how much remains up in the air entering Sunday afternoon’s final pairings. If someone posts a low number early, Rory could find himself quickly under the gun.
3. That. Freaking. Triple.
How many times in the last decade have we Monday morning quarterbacked a Rory near-miss by remembering a cataclysmic early-week mistake? That came on the 18th hole on Thursday, when McIlroy made an ugly triple, neutering any early momentum.
He’ll enter Sunday having made up for that mistake, but it feels like an eerie forewarning of a story we’ve seen far too many times over these last few years.
Why we’ll be watching anyway
C’mon now. It’s Rory. In the final pairing. On Sunday. At Jack’s Place. This is as close to must-see TV as we get on non-major weeks in golf.
So strap in with CBS tomorrow afternoon at 2:30 p.m. ET and prepare yourself in advance, because it’s gonna be a ride.