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  • Writer's pictureWes Kerr

McIlroy, Rahm headline contenders for CJ Cup final round

The marquee name of the 2022 CJ Cup In South Carolina is 18 holes away from defending his title and creating a lasting Lowcountry memory.

Fueled by a pair of highlight-reel eagles, Rory McIlroy fired a 4-under 67 on Saturday at Congaree Golf Club to take a one-stroke lead over three others at 13-under par, but the defending CJ Cup champion and reigning FedEx Cup winner will have to stave off a trio of formidable foes just a shot back in Jon Rahm, Kurt Kitayama, and Korean sensation K.H. Lee.

Taylor Moore and Aaron Wise are tied for fifth at 10-under par, and both Korean Tom Kim and Brendon Todd lurk four strokes back at 9-under. If Rory pulls out the victory, he’ll likely jump to the number one spot in the Official World Golf rankings.

The special round for McIlroy started out with a flurry of fireworks on Congaree’s two early par-5s. After picking up his first birdie of the day on No. 2, McIlroy stuck his second shot just two feet from the flag on the 569-yard fourth to set up a tap-in eagle and surge to 11-under par. The four-time major champion found his second eagle of the day on the par-5 12th, bombing his drive 376 yards before sinking a 32-foot putt from off the green to snatch the solo lead at 14-under. He delivered a ball-striking clinic on a demanding Congaree track, nailing his approach shots with impressive precision. McIlroy leads the field with an outstanding 5.083 strokes gained off the tee and will eye his 23rd PGA Tour victory on Sunday.

“I think the eagle on 12 was the most fun just after how hard I hit the shot,” McIlroy said. “The 6-iron into 4 as well, it landed absolutely perfect. I couldn’t have landed it in a better spot to obviously trundle up there towards the hole. It was sort of 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 I did enough to hang in there and shoot a solid score.”

But McIlroy isn’t the only potential feel-good story that could come to fruition on Sunday. Fellow top-10 player Jon Rahm is right on Rory’s tail, shooting a solid 1-under 70 to sit just one stroke back of the lead. Rahm bounced back strongly after back-to-back bogeys on the 10th and 11th, shooting 3-under par the rest of the way including a clutch 21-foot birdie putt on the challenging par-4 17th. A hot putter on Sunday could quickly vault Rahm to the top spot and his eighth PGA Tour win.

“A lot of battle today. I’m proud of it, very proud of it,” Rahm said. “I mean, I’m standing on the 12th tee, I think I was four back with people looking at par 5s and the tee up on 15, 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.”

After a scorching 5-under 66, K.H. Lee will be looking to make history of his own on Sunday and become the first Korean to win the CJ Cup — which originally was developed as Korea’s first PGA Tour event before moving stateside due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee displayed sensational ball-striking throughout his round, hitting 16 of 18 greens in regulation en route to six birdies on the day. He knows how to win from behind, capturing both of his PGA Tour wins in comeback fashion at the AT&T Byron Nelson. But a win on Sunday would be his most memorable yet.

Kurt Kitayama has been clawing for his first PGA Tour win, and he’ll have another chance to break through at Congaree. The California native turned in a steady 1-under par 70, carding two birdies in his first three holes and staying strong throughout a challenging back nine. He’ll look to claim his elusive first victory after a pair of runner-up finishes earlier this year.

“I feel pretty good,” Kitayama said. “I hit it well, gave myself some good opportunities. You know, you want to play against the best and it’s a good leaderboard up there. Going to have to play good tomorrow.”

The stars are aligned for a storybook finish on Sunday under dazzling fall conditions. It’s a chance for McIlroy to ascend back to the top of the golf hierarchy, for Rahm to start the new season strong, and for Lee to bring the CJ Cup crown back to home soil.

After Garrick Higgo’s six-stroke comeback win at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree last June — and with 17 world-class golfers within six of McIlroy’s lead going into Sunday — there’s no telling who could lift the trophy at day’s end, but they will have to fight off a top-notch field to get there.

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