Despite ominous predictions and extreme measures, thunder and lightning never materialized to threaten the players during the third round at the British Open.
But when the last putt was holed shortly before the deluge Saturday, the Open, the world’s oldest major golf tournament, was still in grave danger of turning into a rout.
Rory McIlroy was grounded and befuddled as he missed the cut at last year’s Open at Muirfield. This year, he is soaring above the field at Royal Liverpool: turning its par 5s into his personal playgrounds.
Still 25, McIlroy has won his two major titles by the same eight-shot margin, and a third such processional is hardly out of the question.
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He leads his former amateur rival Rickie Fowler by six shots heading into Sunday’s final round, and the remarkable part is that with five holes to play Saturday, he and Fowler were tied for the lead at 12-under par.
McIlroy, who started the round with a four-stroke advantage, took a long look at the leader board on the 13th hole. Was the Open slipping away? Hardly.
All McIlroy did from there was make a birdie on 14 and an eagle on 16. Then, after a tap on the brakes at 17 with a bogey, he nailed a 5-iron from 237 yards into the heart of the 18th green, then sank an 11-foot putt for another eagle.
It was indeed a Holywood ending, as one British radio commentator put it, referring to McIlroy’s hometown in Northern Ireland.
“Obviously, the finish speaks for itself; I was just sort of waiting for those two holes,” McIlroy said of the par-5 16th and par-5 18th.
But the real dream ending can come Sunday, when McIlroy, at 16 under after his 68, will try to win a third major championship to go with the U.S. Open he won at Congressional Country Club in 2011 and the PGA Championship he won at Kiawah Island in 2012.
“I think whenever you have such a big lead, you really can’t think about anyone but yourself,” McIlroy said. “You have to think about how you’re going to control your emotions, how you’re going to control whatever thoughts you have, trying to stay completely in the present and focus on what you need to do.”
What he needs to do, first of all, is project strength early to keep Fowler and the rest of the field from getting any big ideas.
“It will be fun to see if I can go out and put a bit of pressure on him and make him earn it a bit,” Fowler said.
At the U.S. Open last month, Fowler was in the final pairing with Martin Kaymer, who entered the fourth round with a five-stroke lead and won by eight. Now, Fowler again has the odds against him, in part because after a roaring start, he bogeyed Nos. 14, 16 and 17 as McIlroy was accelerating.
Fowler and McIlroy, both 25 and both long pegged for success, first faced off in a foursomes match in 2007 at the Walker Cup, the amateur team event between the United States and Britain and Ireland. Fowler and his partner won as the Americans went on to win by a point at Royal County Down, one of the clubs in Northern Ireland where McIlroy learned the game.
As professionals, Fowler prevailed in a playoff involving McIlroy to win at Quail Hollow in 2012. But that remains Fowler’s lone tour victory, while McIlroy could soon have three of the four major titles. Unlike many athletes on the brink of great success, McIlroy did not shy away from explaining what it might mean.
“It would mean a lot of hype going into Augusta next year,” he said, referring to the Masters, which he has not won.
McIlroy, like Fowler, now resides in South Florida, but this is still as close as he gets to a home major: with Royal Liverpool lying just across the Irish Sea. McIlroy has long been the great European hope, and despite his struggles last season and his surprise decision in May to break off his engagement with the Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, he is clearly back in peak form at Europe’s most important tournament.
“If he shoots around even par or just over par, he is catchable,” said Sergio García, the Spanish veteran, who is tied with Dustin Johnson (Columbia) for third place at 9-under. “But I wouldn’t expect a lot of bogeys out of Rory the way he’s been playing.”
Tiger Woods, who dominated those same holes on his way to the title here in 2006, has struggled in his return to major golf after spinal surgery. On Saturday, he shot a 73 and, at 3-over par for the tournament, is 19 shots off the lead.