Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy plays his approach to the 14th green during his third round 68, on day three of the 2014 British Open Golf Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Course in Hoylake, north west England on July 19, 2014. McIlroy finished his round six shots clear of Rickie Fowler after shooting a four under par 68.
Photograph by: PETER MUHLY, AFP/Getty Images
Hoylake, England — Rickie Fowler never actually removed his golf glove and slapped Rory McIlroy with it --- they’re good buddies and Florida neighbours, after all --- but the challenge was right there for all to see.
He was six-under-par on the day, McIlroy’s four-shot overnight lead was down to nothing, and suddenly, 12 holes into the third round, the 143rd Open Championship was a tie game.
But it only stayed that way until the 25-year-old Northern Irish superstar gave his head a shake and proceeded to make the last five holes a personal statement of intent.
He birdied the 14th hole, eagled the 16th and 18th, and went four-under-par over the final five while Fowler was going two-over.
Tie game? Try a six-shot lead.
“What you have with him is, he's just so explosive,” said Jim Furyk, who tried to make himself a part of the plot, but couldn’t stay with the young guns. “He's won the U.S. Open by eight shots. He obviously doesn't have any issue as the front runner, and has no issue trying to extend that lead, much like Tiger used to.”
Yes, quite a bit like that, actually.
At 16-under-par for 54 holes following his Friday 68, McIlroy is three-quarters of the way to being … well, three-quarters of the way to a career Grand Slam, at age 25.
And he may not be as easy to catch as he was, for a time, on Saturday.
“I didn't get off to the best of starts again (bogeying No. 1 for the second straight day), and had a few chances around the turn to maybe make birdies, and I wasn't able to do that and then dropped a shot,” McIlroy said. “But then I made a big par save on 13. And then to make that birdie putt on 14 was a bonus. And then obviously the finish speaks for itself. I was just sort of waiting for those two holes.”
He hit a 252-yard 4-iron into No. 16 and holed about a 20-foot putt for eagle, and a 239-yard 5-iron at 18 that stopped, right on line, no more than 10 feet shy of the pin. And holed that.
“I just wanted to try and be as much ahead as I possibly could. And that's why I was grinding over the putt at the last, just to try and finish the round off well. I felt like those two shots into 18 deserved an eagle,” he said.
Far down the draw, pressure-free, starting off on the 10th tee where the also-rans were relegated --- the first time in the 154-year history of the Open that split tees were used, in an effort to beat a massive rainstorm that hit moments after the final groups finished --- Tiger Woods floundered to a 73.
The fellow who never used to beat himself, especially in majors, made a double-bogey and a triple-bogey (two of each now, for the week) and --- forced by soft conditions this week to pull his unreliable driver out of mothballs --- has consistently driven into trouble, just one of many shortcomings in his game, compared to what it once was.
“I'm starting to get the flow of the round, the flow of playing again,” said Woods. “But still I've just made too many mistakes. You can't run up high scores like that and expect to contend, especially when the conditions are this benign. Most of the scores are 3-under par or better. I certainly didn't do that.”
Anyway, that was “in other news” stuff.
The main event was taking place on the other side of the golf course, where McIlroy was making two of the purest eagles you will ever see on the 16th and 18th holes to all but seal his third major title … although, having watched Greg Norman blow a six-shot overnight lead to Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters, one should never say never.
“A lot can happen. And I've been on the right side of it and I've been on the wrong side of it. And that's why you just have to -- you can't let yourself think forward,” McIlroy said. “You can't let yourself think about winning or whatever it is. You've just got to completely stay in the moment, and that's what I'm going to try to do for all 18 holes tomorrow.”
The decision to play split tees had its share of critics, mostly in the media, but it proved the right one.
“I think it's the second best decision the R&A made this year; the first being bringing The Open back to Portrush (in Northern Ireland). They got it right. You don't want to be stuck out in that,” McIlroy said, pointing to the roof of the media tent, where the roar of the rain nearly drowned out his news conference.
He was clearly proud of his response to the charge Fowler had put on him.
“I was conscious of it. I was conscious that Rickie was getting a little closer or Sergio (Garcia) or whoever it was. But it was nice to be able to come up with the goods when I needed them the last few holes.”
The few times his irons let him down, his putter saved him and after his bogey at the 12th, he was rock-solid.
Saturday’s drama featured more than just McIlroy and Fowler.
Dustin Johnson, who’d been closest to the lead after 36 holes, cut McIlroy’s lead to two strokes after the very first hole when he birdied to McIlroy’s bogey, but he cooled off quickly and never got closer, finishing at nine-under, seven shots off the pace.
Garcia put his oar in with four birdies on the front nine and was only three strokes back after 13, but that’s when McIlroy hit the accelerator and left them all breathing his exhaust.
Garcia and Johnson, playing in the next-to-last group just ahead of McIlroy and Fowler on Sunday, represent the last of the distant hopes to catch the leader.
Beyond them, France’s Victor Dubuisson is eight behind, and Edoardo Molinari nine, then it’s five players at six-under-par, 10 off the pace --- Matteo Manassero, Adam Scott, Robert Karlsson, Furyk and Charl Schwartzel, any one of whom might conceivable climb as high as second, but not first.
Fowler, who also played in the final group at the U.S. Open with Martin Kaymer --- but, like this week, far behind the leader --- had the best chance Saturday, and intends to give it another shot.
His lone PGA Tour win, in 2012, was in a playoff against McIlroy at Quail Hollow, so he has that going for him. The two first met as amateurs in the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down, and each was labeled his country’s Next Big Thing at the time.
“You’re never really sure what's going to happen in the future,” said Fowler. “He was definitely the young star over here. And I was one of the young stars from the U.S. But in the past couple of years, seeing what he's been doing, obviously he has two majors already. He's a bit out in front of me right now.
“It was just a matter of time before the two of us found a way to sneak into a final group together.
“So I'm looking forward to it tomorrow. It's going to be a good time. We're good buddies and at the same time we both want to beat up on each other as bad as possible. We'll have fun throwing shots back and forth.
“And 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 … because he's definitely in control of the golf tournament right now.”
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