The 29-year-old quadruple major champion said he had kept patient and drew on his experience despite at times the windy conditions exposing flaws in his game, he still came in one-under par to join last year’s runner-up Francesco Molinari on 13 under par.
They have a four shot cushion on a quartet which includes last year’s champion Alex Noren, who also had an adventure-filled round.
“It was a struggle out there today,” said McIlroy, who won the PGA title in 2014 but has also missed four cuts.
“But I am proud of myself as I stayed patient and relied on my experience.
“It is pleasing to still be up there and tied for the lead.”
McIlroy began badly including a double bogey at the sixth where during his event-filled journey to the green he managed to hit a female spectator on the hand with one shot — her wincing in pan reflecting the feelings of McIlroy’s many followers in the gallery.
He steadied himself in the middle and kept himself on the tail of Molinari although once again on the 18th a wild drive this time drew blood from the head of another female spectator who was comforted by him and then was swathed in bandages.
“It obviously affects you when you see blood,” said McIlroy, who along with playing partner Sam Horsfield also hit the same unfortunate marshal on the 17th.
“I said sorry and I hope they are ok. I don’t know what else I could do offering them a glove wouldn’t have been much of a consolation.
“Are the crowds too close to play here? Well when you’re hitting the balls like I was today they are,” he added smiling.
McIlroy, who after a bright start to the season has seen his form go flat since the Masters eluded him once again in April, said there was enough quality behind to give him and Molinari food for thought.
“We have a cushion so it could be a two hose race if we get off to good starts,” he said.
“However, look what happened last year Alex cam from nowhere and blew them away.”
Whilst McIlroy’s round was anything but a thing of beauty Molinari’s was picture perfect with six birdies and even when the Italian put his ball into water on the final hole he managed to save par.
– ‘In the heart of Italian Golfers’ -Molinari, a two-time winner of the Italian Open, is all too mindful of what happened last year but he is keen to add his name to the list of previous Italian winners.
“It would be amazing to win here with such a tradition,” said Molinari.
“It’s a course that is in the heart of Italian Golfers, as well, with Costantino (Rocca in 1996) and Matteo (Manassero in 2013) winning here in the past,” added the 35-year-old.
Noren, who denied Molinari last year with a scintillating last round 62, is very much still in contention posting three successive birdies early on the back nine before handing those shots back but finished with two more birdies.
Veteran Lee Westwood is also lying ready to pounce as he carded a second successive 69, leaving the 45-year-old Englishman five off the lead.
Westwood, who was named a Ryder Cup vice-captain earlier in the week but if he won the PGA could easily qualify for the team in a competition he has reserved some of his finest Golf for, said he was delighted to be in with a chance of victory.
“I figured if the breeze got up Rory would drop some shots,” said Westwood.
“I think being in contention in these big tournaments is what it’s all about. It’s where you want to be, and it’s nice to have a chance tomorrow.”
Noren carded a course record of 62 in the final round last year, but was nevertheless happy to heap praise on McIlroy’s flawless 65, which gave the four-time major winner a halfway total of 12 under par and a three-shot lead over England’s Sam Horsfield.
“That’s the best round I’ve ever seen. I’m about to quit golf I think,” said Noren, whose own 68 left him five shots off the pace on seven under alongside Robert Rock and Kiradech Aphibarnrat.
“It’s hard to draw off it when it’s that good. It’s tough because it’s almost like you’re trying to play better than you need to when you see that. I really wanted to get the honour and be first on the tee and then you don’t have to hit after that 330-yard driver or 300-yard three-wood.”
McIlroy’s more measured assessment reflected the fact that he missed good chances on the first three holes and failed to birdie the 17th and 18th, both par fives, for the second day in succession.
“There’s still a couple of loose shots in there, like the one on 18 (which plugged in a greenside bunker), but overall it was a great round of golf,” McIlroy said after matching his career-low score at Wentworth, although a previous 65 in 2009 was before the course changes the following year.
“I had everything sort of firing today and it was nice to take advantage of the opportunities I gave myself. All you ask for is giving yourself a chance every week.
“I could go out and shoot two 65s at the weekend and get beaten so you can’t expect to win. All I expect to do is go out and control what I can control. Every tournament is a big tournament but the more I can play well and the more confidence I can build going into those majors the better.”
McIlroy, who confirmed he is no longer working with putting coach Phil Kenyon, got the ball rolling with a birdie on the par-five fourth, before picking up further shots on the seventh and ninth to reach the turn in 32.
The 29-year-old then rattled off four birdies in succession on the back nine and was five shots clear before Horsfield fired four birdies in five holes from the 12th.
The Orlando-based 21-year-old, who is a protege of Ian Poulter, gained his European Tour card by winning the qualifying school by eight shots last year and has already recorded two top-four finishes in his rookie season.
“I think any time you’re playing on the weekend and you’re up there near Rory, I think you’re going to be doing pretty well,” Horsfield said. “Whoever I end up playing with I’m going to go out there and give it my all.
“I’ve lived in America since I was five but I do feel English and there’s no doubt who I’d play for in the Ryder Cup. It’s pretty cool to be able to play in an event like this.”
European number one Tommy Fleetwood birdied the last three holes to shoot 66 and lie four shots off the lead, while playing partner Poulter did the same in his 67 to finish three under.
Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed set up a mouth-watering repeat of their Ryder Cup showdown as damp conditions failed to prevent fireworks in the 82nd Masters.
And while Reed will start the final day with a three-shot lead on 14 under par, McIlroy will arguably have the momentum in pursuit of the win he needs to complete a career grand slam after a dramatic finish to a roller-coaster third round at Augusta National.
Reed responded to seeing McIlroy erase a five-shot overnight deficit by firing a hat-trick of birdies from the eighth and then making two eagles in the space of three holes on the back nine.
That took the 27-year-old five shots clear once more, but a three-putt bogey on the 16th gave the chasing pack renewed hope and McIlroy took full advantage with a birdie on the last.
TWEET OF THE DAY
To those thinking it’s a two-horse race, Nick Faldo makes reference to his final-round comeback against Greg Norman in 1996.
SHOT OF THE DAY
Phil Mickelson had started with an air-shot and triple-bogey seven on the first, but when faced with an uphill second shot of 270 yards on the eighth, opted to hit a driver off the deck and produced a superb approach which finished just eight feet from the hole.
ROUND OF THE DAY
Overnight leader Reed responded to seeing his five-stroke lead wiped out in eight holes and shot 67 with two eagles, but McIlroy edges it with a 65 which relied on a little bit of luck but some fantastic short game skills to keep it bogey-free.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Manchester United fan Rory McIlroy finds time amid the excitement to check the football scores.
The opening hole played to an average of 4.302, giving up just two birdies and seeing a triple bogey from Phil Mickelson, who had an air-shot after hitting a tree branch on his downswing while attempting a trademark recovery shot.
Patrick Reed made one of the two eagles and Rory McIlroy one of the 27 birdies on the par-five 15th, which played to a scoring average of 4.434 and saw just one player make bogey.
ON THE UP
Rory’s mind-game skills as he was quick to suggest all the pressure would be on Reed in the final round, even though he himself is attempting to win the career grand slam only achieved by five other players.
ON THE SLIDE
Marc Leishman’s prospects of following compatriot Adam Scott in winning the Masters after a third round which featured no birdies, one bogey and 17 pars.
Provided by Press Association Sport