PITTSFORD, N.Y. – Rory McIlroy already was 5 over for his round and appeared headed to another short week in a major. He finished with four birdies on the last eight holes, including a 40-foot putt from off the green, and achieved a first in his PGA Tour career.
He made his first cut at a tournament when he was the defending champion.
The sample size is small — this was only his fourth time as defending champ — but the 24-year-old from Northern Ireland was no less pleased. Considering the way his season has gone, he'll take even the most modest of victories.
"I'm obviously standing up pretty happy about the day," McIlroy said after rallying for a 71 to post two rounds at even-par 140. "Had a nice finish to the round. I was letting the round get away from me somewhat, but making four birdies on the last eight holes was nice to redeem the round a little bit and keep myself in the tournament."
McIlroy previously missed the cut when defending at Quail Hollow in 2011, the U.S. Open in 2012 and the Honda Classic this year when he withdrew in the middle of the second round. He has two more title defenses in the next month at the Deutsche Bank Championship and the BMW Championship. That's assuming he gets to the BMW Championship, which is for only the top 70 in the FedEx Cup playoffs. McIlroy is at No. 58.
Perhaps he can pick up some ground on the weekend, and it starts with playing.
"It makes me feel good because maybe in the middle of the season, or a couple of months ago, I wouldn't have been standing up here," McIlroy said. "I would have been going home. It's good to be able to do that and fight back. Makes you feel good about yourself going into the weekend."
His big run began with a 3-iron to 6 feet on the 215-yard third hole. He got up-and-down from 50 yards for birdie on the par-5 fourth, holed the long putt from off the green on the seventh and hit wedge to 3 feet on No. 8.
"Walking up the second hole, all I wanted to do is be here for the weekend," McIlroy said. "All of a sudden, I'm somewhat back in the tournament. It's giving me a nice bit of momentum going into tomorrow."
The key word, of course, is "tomorrow."
RELIVING HISTORY: Steve Stricker felt privileged to witness someone trying to become the first player to shoot 62 in a major, even though he had the chance himself.
He just didn't remember much of that day at Atlanta Athletic Club, when Stricker missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole and had to settle for a 63 in the opening round of the 2011 PGA Championship.
"I literally didn't even think about the putt that I had on the last to break the mark," said Stricker, who played in Jason Dufner's group on Friday. "I was just so engrossed in what I was doing and shooting the lowest score possible that I really didn't even pay attention to how many under I was and what I was shooting at the time. So I was able to kind of enjoy Dufner's more than I was able to enjoy mine."
Dufner had a 12-foot birdie putt for a 62, but he left the putt short. Stricker could see why.
"Any putt uphill into the grain became difficult because of all the heal prints and the marks on the greens, because the greens were so soft from the rain," Stricker said. "I wish he would have gotten it to the hole and had a better chance at it.
"But it was just a great round of golf," he said. "He played great and it was fun to see."
KAYMER'S EXPECTATIONS: Martin Kaymer of Germany reached No. 1 in the world in early 2011 and stayed there for eight weeks. He has won only one tournament since then, and he has yet to finish in the top 10 of a major since winning the PGA Championship in 2010 at Whistling Straits.
Kaymer resurfaced at Oak Hill with a pair of 68s, leaving only five shots out of the lead going into the weekend.
Getting to the top of the ranking came sooner than he expected, and Kaymer said he felt his game was still a work in progress.
"To be honest with you, when I became No. 1, it was a surprise," he said. "I was not playing like the best player on the planet. I didn't feel like the best player. And therefore, I needed to change a few things."
He tried to retool his swing, and even as he plunged in the ranking, he wasn't concerned. He just wanted to be a better player.
"If other people see you as being No. 1, but you don't see yourself as No. 1, how can you play like No. 1?" he said. "That's not possible. Therefore, I became a better player."
Kaymer said the hardest part was the burden of expectations and the distractions — he had more fans, and a lot more media attention.
That's why he is impressed with how Rory McIlroy handled the fame.
"Rory did brilliant," he said. "He's still very young, and he's a good kid, and I don't see any problem."
LEFTY CAN'T GET IT RIGHT: Phil Mickelson stayed on the practice range until sunset Thursday working with coach Butch Harmon, trying to find the swing that brought him a British Open title only three weeks ago.
He hit his opening tee shot into deep rough on the left. His next tee shot went into a bunker right of the flag.
Mickelson, remarkably, went out in 34 despite not having a clear sense where the ball was going. It caught up with him on the front nine, however, with two bogeys and no birdies. Mickelson shot another 71 and was toward the bottom of the pack.
Making it look worse was playing alongside the other two major champions this year — Masters champ Adam Scott, who had a 68, and U.S. Open champ Justin Rose, who shot 29 on the front nine for a 66.
"What I found was the holes that were birdie holes actually played easier because of the rain by softening the greens. The holes that were really hard, like 17 and 18, played even harder," Mickelson said. "I thought that guys that were playing well, like Adam and Justin, it gives them a chance to play and separate themselves from the players who aren't playing well — like myself."
DIVOTS: Angel Cabrera withdrew in the middle of his second round with a wrist injury. The two-time major champion opened with an 80 and was 2 over for his round when he stopped. Jamie Donaldson of Wales also opened with an 80 and withdrew before starting his second round. ... The cut was at 143, the lowest since it was 141 at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2001. That also was the last time someone had 131 at the 36-hole mark, tying the PGA Championship. Jason Dufner matched that record. ... Hiroyuki Fujita had his own version of the Grand Slam. He is the only player to miss the cut in all four majors this year.