ATLANTA (Reuters) - Rory McIlroy spectacularly eagled the par-five 15th to join Billy Horschel in a tie for the lead in the Tour Championship on Saturday and set up a thrilling conclusion to the 2013-14 PGA Tour season.
With the FedExCup playoff title and a bonus jackpot of $10 million on the line at East Lake Golf Club, world number one McIlroy sank a 26-foot putt to draw level at the top, then parred the last three holes to card a three-under-par 67.
That left the Northern Irishman at nine-under 201 in the fourth and final playoff event, level with his American playing partner Horschel, who had been three ahead at the turn before losing momentum over the closing stretch on the way to a 69.
McIlroy has already enjoyed a superb 2014 campaign, clinching two major titles among four wins worldwide, and has set his sights on claiming the FedExCup crown for the first time after a season-long race.
“I haven’t played my best golf by any stretch this week, but I‘m just sort of grinding out scores and trying to keep myself at the top of the leaderboard,” McIlroy told reporters after carding three birdies, his timely eagle and two bogeys.
“Being tied for the lead going into the last day tomorrow with the way I’ve played this week, I can’t really ask for any more,” said the 25-year-old, who twice three-putted for bogey during the third round.
“I feel like I’ve had the best year out of anyone on Tour and I’ve came here with the ultimate goal of trying to cap it off, trying to put an exclamation point on it.”
Horschel is also seeking to end his season with a flourish, having tied for second at the Deutsche Bank Championship earlier this month before winning the BMW Championship six days ago.
”It was like two different nines today,“ said Horschel, who mixed three birdies with two bogeys. ”I played really good on the front side ... but after that I was holding on to the reins pretty tight.
“But I was able to keep it together, battle and turn in a number that I can be somewhat happy with and put me in a great position going into Sunday.”
Veteran American Jim Furyk, who has not triumphed on the PGA Tour since his 2010 victory at the Tour Championship, was alone in third place at seven under after firing a four-birdie 67.
English world number five Justin Rose (66), American young gun Rickie Fowler (67) and Australian Jason Day (70) were a further stroke back on a high-quality leaderboard after charging into contention on what is traditionally known as ‘Moving Day’.
Horschel, two ahead of his closest pursuers overnight, had his lead briefly cut to one when first Day and then McIlroy birdied the opening hole on a steamy afternoon in Atlanta.
However, both Day and McIlroy bogeyed the par-three second where Horschel drained a bomb, a 50-foot birdie putt giving him a three-stroke cushion.
McIlroy rebounded by sinking a 22-foot birdie putt at the third but Horschel regained a three-shot lead when he struck a superb approach to six feet at the par-four eighth and knocked in the putt.
Both players birdied the par-five ninth after reaching the green in two and two-putting for Horschel to reach the turn in three-under 32, three ahead of the chasing pack at 11 under.
Horschel dropped his first shot of the day at the 10th, where he missed the fairway off the tee and failed to reach the green in two, but McIlroy also bogeyed the hole, three-putting from long range, to remain three shots adrift.
After lipping out with a birdie attempt from 16 feet at the 11th, Horschel found a bunker off the tee and also with his approach to bogey the 13th and slip to nine under.
McIlroy then upped things a gear, almost reaching the green in two at the 15th before draining the eagle putt from just off the fringe to join Horschel in a two-way tie at the top.
Watched by the largest galleries of the day, they parred the last three holes to remain at nine under, each of them staying on track for the biggest payday of their respective careers.
Any of the top five in the points standings would clinch the FedExCup by winning the Tour Championship, a group that comprises top-ranked Chris Kirk, Horschel (second), Bubba Watson (third), McIlroy (fourth) and Hunter Mahan (fifth).
Editing by Gene Cherry