PINEHURST, N.C. — Rory McIlroy’s forever war can end on Sunday. The war of who he once was against the hope of what he could still be again. It’s not the first time he’s had the chance to do so, and it’s certainly not his best. That was at St. Andrews two summers ago. Got a good look last year at Los Angeles Country Club, too. Different opportunities, each ending in heartache. But Sunday is a chance, and while that guarantees nothing it’s everything he and his many supporters can ask at this moment. It’s why he plays and why fans follow, it’s why belief exists. There are 18 holes left in the U.S. Open and McIlroy has a chance to end his major drought.

McIlroy is in the running at Pinehurst for the national championship, authoring a one-under 69 on Saturday. At times it was exciting, attacking pins that had no business being attacked. At times it was infuriating, bogeying both par 3s on the back, including of the short-sided variety at the 17th. But he was able to ultimately stay steady as others like Tony Finau and Ludvig Aberg went south. He did the most important thing you can do on a Saturday, which is make Sunday matter.

“Yeah, just a really difficult U.S. Open Saturday,” McIlroy said. “I think everything we expected it to be. The course is getting crispy. Some of the pin positions are pretty tricky. Felt like a lot of them were cut on little crowns. There was a lot of uphill putts but then after the hole it went downhill, so pretty tricky to get the pace right. It caught me out a couple times.

“I love the test that Pinehurst is presenting, and you’ve got to focus and concentrate on every single shot out there. It’s what a U.S. Open should be like. It’s obviously great to be in the mix.”

McIlroy’s in a tie for second, three behind 54-hole leader Bryson DeChambeau. For his efforts, McIlroy earned a spot in the penultimate group, something he said isn’t a bad thing. He can put pressure on DeChambeau from this position and DeChambeau follow in his fans’ wake. Oh, and McIlroy will be paired with his nemesis, Patrick Cantlay. Just in case Sunday needed any more backstory.

But it doesn’t, does it?

McIlroy had been in this position heading into a major Sunday before, and there’s no need to rehash that his major total of four has remained at four for some time. He does not have total control of his destiny. DeChambeau has been too good, in command of his game and himself. McIlroy’s not the only chaser, tied on the board with Cantlay and Matthieu Pavon. McIlroy can make things uncomfortable on DeChambeau and the rest of the pack, but to be the last man standing he will need some help.

It will not be destiny. If fate factored into this equation the drought would have never become a drought. It will not be a coronation; Scottie Scheffler’s reign as the game’s best is not in danger. It could be sentimental, but likely not to the same degree as the symmetry on display between McIlroy and the crowds at St. Andrews, for that week the two entities became one. It will not be karma because karma has been so overdue it’s gone delinquent. If Sunday happens, it will be because McIlroy is a very good golfer, and only very good golfers can pass the challenge Pinehurst has put forth.

“I think I’m embracing the questions that the golf course asks of you,” McIlroy said. “I think there’s holes where you have to be aggressive. There’s holes where you have to be conservative. There’s hole locations that you can take on and hit wedges close to. There’s hole locations you’ve got to stay away from.

“It tests your chipping. It tests your putting. It obviously tests your mental fortitude more than any other golf tournament.”

Sunday will just be a chance for McIlroy to do something he’s been unable to do in some time. Another chance to look human, another chance to look hurt, another chance to remind us that expectation often leads to disappointment. We know this, and McIlroy does too, and that he’s willing to keep going forward is why so many will never leave his side.

There are 18 holes left at the U.S. Open, and Rory McIlroy has a chance.


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