Rory McIlroy was forced to produce a dramatic late rally to keep his US PGA title hopes on life support as Shane Lowry saw his sensational second round charge derailed by a rain delay and a late triple bogey.
American Kevin Kisner (33) fired a second successive 67 to lead on eight-under par in the clubhouse and was later joined at the top of the leaderboad by the in-form Hideki Matsuyama who shot a stunning 64.
McIlroy recovered from four bogeys in a five-hole stretch on the back nine to post a secondHideki Matsuyama be 10 strokes off the pace on two-over par.
The 28-year old Co Down man came from nine shots behind at halfway to win his maiden PGA Tour title at Quail Hollow in 2010.
But while insisted that two 67s could still be enough to earn him his fifth Major title on Sunday, the field was moving away from him when play was suspended for one hour and 42 minutes when a thunderstorm hit the course.
“These guys going out this afternoon, they break 70, they have done a hell of a job,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy was wrong, however, as a host of players hit the birdie trail, led by Offaly man Lowry, who was five under for the day with three to go before racking up a triple bogey six at the 17th to card a 69 that left him nine shots off the pace on one-over.
After parring the 16th on the resumption, Lowry was distracted on the 177-yard 17th, carving his tee shot in the right rough before chipping through the green into the lake.
Forced to go back to the drop zone, he hit a 109-yard approach to 13 feet but two putted for a six to slip back to one over par for the Championship.
It was a cruel blow to the Clara man, who made a 26-footer for a two at the fourth before picking up four birdies in six holes on the back nine to move into the red on two-under par.
After converting from eight feet at the 10th, he made a 20 footer at the 11th, saved par from 14 feet at the 12th, knocked in a seven footer for birdie at the driveable 14th and chipped dead to set up a tap in birdie at the par-five 15th to move up to get within six shots of Kisner before his momentum was halted by the weather gods.
As for McIlroy – ranked 128th of the 130 PGA Tour pros in the field from 100-125 yards – he was bullish about his chances of making a weekend comeback but will need to hit more fairways and improve drastically with the putter.
The Holywood star produced a Seve-like par save at his opening hole – deliberately rocketing a low six-iron off a cart path, through a bunker and onto the edge of the 10th green after his approach had careered down the same cart path, 80 yards right of the green.
It was really the only option I had,” McIlroy said after his ball found grass near the curb of a path and got free relief.
“Luckily it got out of the bunker and on to the other side. That could have been a six or a seven quite easily.”
It was an early moment of magic from the world No 4 but there was precious little else to cheer until he scrambled away from the cut line with those late birdies.
“I feel a lot better about myself being two-over for the tournament instead of four-over,” McIlroy said after making five footers at the seventh and eighth.
“I think it’s quite a big difference. If I get out tomorrow and get off to hopefully a better start, I feel like I’ll still be right in this tournament.”
Had he not birdied two of the easiest holes on the course, his chances of victory would have suffered a massive blow. But he now feels he can put pressure on 33-year old Kisner, on eight under.
“Obviously ‘Kis’ is on fire right now,” McIlroy said. “But take him out of the equation, I feel like I’m still right there in the tournament.”
Although Hideki Matsuyama finished in ominous fashion with a five-under par back nine leaving the in-form Japanese star one shot off the lead after a second-round 64.
McIlroy is no stranger to pulling off the seemingly impossible at Quail Hollow, making the cut on the mark before carding weekend rounds of 66 and 62 to win his maiden PGA Tour title here in 2010.
His problem is that the new Quail Hollow bears little resemblance to the course where he laid the foundations of his second win here two years ago with a third round 61.
“It’s a completely different golf course,” McIlroy said. “Even if they didn’t do anything else with the golf course and just changed it to full bermuda like it is now, all of a sudden makes the golf course two shots more difficult.”
The rough was McIlroy’s biggest problem yesterday as he hit just seven fairways and left himself an average of 54 feet from the hole.
But as he chased down Kisner on the back nine, he went backwards instead, hitting just one fairway and one green in his first six holes after the turn.
Those mistakes led to bogeys at the second, third, fifth and sixth before he rallied in true McIlroy style, converting five footers for birdie at the par-five seventh and short, par-four eighth before leaving a 12 footer hanging on the left lip at the last.
“I knew there was a couple of chances coming up,” McIlroy said. “I said to Harry, ‘Let’s birdie two of the last three.’
“He said, ‘No, let’s birdie the last three.’ So I was able to do the first part. Had a good chance at the last and didn’t quite convert.”
Asked if he saw a “low one” out there, he said: “Yeah, but I guess a low round used to be a 61 or a 62. A low round now is a 66 or a 67.”
- US PGA, Live, BBC red button from 7.0, BBC2 10.30