RIDGELAND, S.C. — Rory McIlroy had two eagles that made his score look better than it felt Saturday. All that mattered was a one-shot lead at the CJ Cup in South Carolina, putting him in position for his third win of the year.
This one would come with a bonus: A chance to return to No. 1 in the world.
McIlroy can reclaim the top spot under two scenarios: if he wins and Scottie Scheffler finishes worse than tied for second with one other, or if McIlroy finishes second alone and Scheffler finishes worse than 34th alone.
That would be nothing new for McIlroy, who first reached the top of the world ranking more than 10 years ago, though it would be no less special. Having been there eight times before, it’s not a distraction — not with Jon Rahm among those one shot behind.
“Ultimately, I just want to win this golf tournament. If I win the golf tournament, then everything will take care of itself,” McIlroy said after his 4-under 67.
“So for me, tomorrow I need to go out there, set myself a score that I want to shoot, try to do that,” he said. “Focusing on that, hope that that ends up with a couple of things, a trophy and getting back to the top of the world rankings.”
Rahm fell five shots behind at one point and rallied to salvage that otherwise felt like a fight against Congaree all day. He wound up with a 70 and was one shot behind, along with Kurt Kitayama (70) and K.H. Lee (66).
The eagles made all the difference, and they were vintage McIlroy. He drilled one drive on the par-5 fourth that left him 6-iron that perfectly caught the slope and rolled to 2 feet. On the par-5 12th, he smashed his drive 376 yards and rolled in a 30-foot putt from off the green on the tightly mown turf.
Which was his favorite?
“It’s nice when you get that question,” he said, settling on No. 12 because of how much fun it was to hit the ball that far.
The rest of the round was even par, a mix of good birdies and sloppy bogeys.
“You take away those two holes and I was even par for the rest of the round. Felt like it was a little scrappy coming in, but did enough to hang in there and shoot a solid score,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy was at 13-under 200.
Rahm started the second round tied for the lead. He was five shots behind when McIlroy made his eagle on No. 12.
But the big Spaniard was solid as Gibraltar coming in at Congaree, picking off birdies with two good bunker shots and making a great escape for par on the 16th, where he purposely took free relief into the trees because of a tiny gap.
“A lot of battle today. I’m proud of it,” Rahm said. “I’m standing on 12 tee … I thought things could get ugly. But I just stayed on my own game and tried to make some birdies coming in and put myself in position for tomorrow.”
His only disappointment was not getting into the final group with McIlroy, a power group for a sleepy tournament in the low country.
Lee matched the low round of a day made challenging by some tees moved back and some pins in perilous positions. He also made amends on the 17th hole, the toughest at Congaree this week. Lee four-putted – the last three putts from 5 feet – for a double bogey Friday. This time he made one of only three birdies.
“Much better than yesterday,” he said.
Kitayama is the most curious of the contenders, a 29-year-old Californian who spent two years on the Korn Ferry Tour without much success, and then four years toiling across Asia and Europe, winning three times.
He battled Rahm in the Mexico Open and finished one back. He finished one behind Xander Schauffele in the Scottish Open. Saturday was the first time he had a share of the lead going into the weekend on the PGA Tour, and he held his own.
He was tied for the lead until his 65-foot putt across the 17th green ran some 7 feet by the cup, and he missed the comebacker for par.
Aaron Wise, much like Rahm, also had to piece together a game that didn’t feel like it was there. He had consecutive bogeys in the middle of the back nine, but scratched out pars coming in for a 71 and put him in the group three shots behind.
Tom Kim had a 69 and was four shots back in his bid to win for the third time before turning 21. The 20-year-old has won three of his last five starts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.