VIRGINIA WATER, England -- On Friday, horse racing owner J.P. McManus and former champion jockey Tony McCoy followed their friend Rory McIlroy down the tree-lined fairways of the West Course at Wentworth.
Twenty-four hours later, McIlroy found himself in what appears to be a two-horse race for the BMW PGA Championship, a 7,284-yard chase with 18 jumps and, if the third round was anything to go by, plenty of opportunity for falls, refusals and even injuries.
The Northern Irishman had started Saturday three strokes clear of the field and he ended it at 13-under 203, with the significant caveat that one man had joined him at the top of the leaderboard: Francesco Molinari, whose sensational 6-under-par 66 was the best of the day. Behind them, Ross Fisher, Branden Grace and defending champion Alex Noren share third.
It might be a struggle to describe Molinari as an Italian stallion, but on the West Course he knows how to live the dolce vita: He is seeking a sixth top-10 finish in the past seven years, and this is the fourth time in the past six years he has held (or shared) an end-of-round lead. The only gap in his record book is a win.
McIlroy, in contrast, boasts a victory in 2014 but has otherwise had his problems here, and his third round was a reminder of those difficulties.
Noren had been moved to say McIlroy's second-round 65 was the best he had ever seen, and Richie Ramsay declared he is a cut above the rest of the world. Those words were prompted by his A-game, yet we have always suspected that his B-game was brought out by the Wentworth examination, and it soon transpired.
"It was a struggle out there today," McIlroy said. "When you're working on a few things in your swing and the wind is up, it's tough. I hit some loose tee balls on the first few holes."
At the third, his drive landed deep in the trees on the right, and on the fourth it very nearly did so down the left. From the sixth tee, his ball flailed right again, and his recovery shot was a shank that hit a spectator. It was to become a theme of the day. He hit a marshal on the 17th and left a female spectator bloodied on the final hole.
McIlroy did ultimately hit more birdies than human beings, but only just. Four of them came after the double-bogey 6 he eventually made on the sixth.
"I relied on my experience, my patience today and I scrambled well," he said. "I was 4 under for the last 12 holes in this wind, which is pretty good, but it wasn't the caliber of golf that I played yesterday. I'm proud of the way I hung in there."
He and third-round playing partner Sam Horsfield, the 21-year-old rookie from England, had more than wind to deal with, however.
On a hot and humid day, the fairways were packed with largely well-behaved fans, a stirring sight when set against the blooming flowers and thick woodland of Wentworth, but a minority of the galleries were notably unruly.
At the first and the fourth they broke the rope barriers, which are normally enough to ensure control, spilling out across the fairways, and McIlroy appeared to notice.
He could not have failed to hear the shouts and cries, which were normally friendly, but one boy hollered, "You're the man, Rory!"and then added, after a poor shot, "You're not the man, Rory." His father laughed heartily at the intentional slight. Elsewhere, some fans wandered onto the third green after the final pair departed it, seeking to take selfies and reacting testily when requested not to by marshals.
If it was a testing slog for McIlroy, the third round was a spectacular trot for Molinari, the 35-year-old veteran of two Ryder Cups, who suggested: "This course has great spirit and history for Italian golf because Costantino Rocca and Matteo Manassero have both won here."
A fairways and greens expert, whose elegantly simple swing is like an Italian design classic, Molinari parred the first seven holes in the gustiest of the wind and then added six birdies in the final 11 holes.
"Clearly it suits my eyes, and I really enjoy the atmosphere," he said. "The crowds are always great. It is a challenging course, but I think if you hit good shots, you can make a few birdies here and there. I love it."
Molinari has collected four career victories, a tally somewhat at odds with his relentless consistency. Last year he was asked about this and endearingly suggested he lacked the ruthlessness required to win regularly.
He demonstrated as much when asked how he would spend Saturday evening. "Well, I'd like to watch the Champions League final," he said. "But it will be up to the kids. So it will probably be 'PAW Patrol.'"
Happy to take second best on the eve of battle, Molinari would dearly love to finish first on Sunday. Maybe only a thoroughbred performance from McIlroy can stop him.