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USPGA Championship: So near yet so far for Rory McIlroy

By Karl MacGinty

Rory McIlroy was agonisingly close to a place in sudden death and the chance of his first Major Championship victory by finishing just one tantalising stroke short after a fighting final round 72 as the USPGA Championship came to a thrilling and hugely controversial climax.

To his credit, the gifted Holywood youngster played truly sublime golf down the stretch but had to be satisfied with a share of third place with Zach Johnson on 10-under, one shot outside the three-hole playoff between Germany's Martin Kaymer and American and Bubba Watson.

Yet there was a distinctly sour taste to the final throes of this championship as the Championship Rules Committee penalised Dustin Johnson by two strokes for grounding his club in a bunker at 18 — though the trap appeared appeared to be one of countless waste bunkers which lie outside the ropes here.

So instead of signing for the 71 which would have given him ample opportunity to make up for his humiliating final day collapse at June's US Open, when his 82 opened the door for Graeme McDowell, he walked away with a 73 and a share of fifth place on nine under.

Johnson, whose penalty brought boos from the crowd when it was announced, commented: “It never crossed my mind I was in a sand trap. The only worse thing that could have happened was if I made that putt (to 'win').

“I just thought I was on a piece of dirt the crowd had trampled down.

“Obviously I know the rules —you can't ground the club in a bunker — but I guess it's one situation where I should have looked at a rulesheet.

“The official said the whole course is a bunker. It's up to them. If it was up to me I would not have thought I was in a bunker.”

Sadly for McIlroy, he missed a procession of chances from short range chances as his putter suddenly went cold. However, the youngster's graduation yesterday into a true contender in the Major championship arena is of huge significance for his sport.

It was just a weird day,” McIlroy said. “I got a good putt on 14, but I missed one on 15, which was quite disappointing.

“I'll take the positives from it. It wasn't the result I wanted, but it's a learning experience.”

It was the third time he has finished third in a major, doing so at last year's USPGA and then the Open at St Andrews last month.

Neither of those, however, saw him in the thick of it like this.

Casey shared 12th with, amongst others, fellow Englishman Simon Dyson and Masters champion Phil Mickelson.

Dyson has kept alive his Ryder Cup hopes in the process, but Mickelson did not do enough to topple Tiger Woods (28th on two under) from the world number one spot.

As Kaymer hunted down hapless overnight leader Nick Watney and then overhauled him with brilliantly facile birdies at the second and fourth yesterday, McIlroy had to scramble hard to keep in touch.

He actually did well to limit the damage to just one dropped shot (out of deep rough behind the fourth green) after landing in sand no fewer than five times in the first four holes.

McIlroy's putter started to go cold when he missed from barely five feet for birdie at the sixth. After nailing a beautiful birdie at the short seventh, he then failed to save par from four feet at eight.

Like Kaymer, McIlroy picked up a shot at 10 but had to watch in anguish as birdie putts slid over the lip at 12 and 13.

Though he holed out nicely from nine feet for birdie at 14 (and a momentary share of the lead on 11-under with Kaymer, Watson and Aussie Steve Elkington), McIlroy's hopes were sorely dented when he pushed a five-footer for par past the cup at the gruelling par four 15th and then failed to make birdie after a superlative 320 yards drive down the par five 16th.

It was over, we thought, but McIlroy's made of sterner stuff and gave himself every chance of a playoff place with a superlative long-iron approach to 15 feet — though he'd miss out this opportunity for the only birdie of the day at 18.

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