Hoylake, LIVERPOOL (July 19) – Not long after Rory McIlroy rolled in an 11 foot putt on 18 at Royal Liverpool for his second eagle in three holes and a six shot lead at the 143rd Open Championship, the heavens opened.
The R&A’s controversial decision to abandon 142 years of history by sending the field out in three balls off two tees Saturday had been vindicated, as much by the deluge of birdies and eagles from McIlroy as from the cats and dogs falling from above.
Prompted by a nasty overnight storm warning, the R&A wanted to get the third round in on schedule and it seems McIlroy is in an even greater hurry to get the year’s third major over and done with.
After a 68, capped by a majestic driver-five iron combo into the last, this Open Championship is McIlroy’s to lose. And the way he’s playing, backing up matching 66s on Thursday and Friday, there seems little chance of the Northern Irishman not going wire-to-wire at Hoylake to capture the third leg of a career grand slam.
As BBC commentator Mark James observed as the 25-year-old walked into the horseshoe grandstand surrounding the 18th green to rapturous applause, McIlroy is peerless when he is at his best and particularly when he has control over his Nike driver.
“They know when they’re cheering that when he’s good, he’s probably as good as anyone there’s ever been. Maybe better,” James told viewers watching the magic unfold at home.
For his part, McIlroy was saying all the right things in his post round presser. He reminded everyone that he’d come back from seven shots to win the European Tour’s flagship BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May while a quick glance at the history books shows McIlroy squandered a four-shot lead at the 2011 Masters, blowing out to an 80 and finishing 10 adrift.
“So I know how leads can go very quickly,” McIlroy cautioned. Still, it will take an historic comeback – or an historic meltdown – for McIlroy to lose from here. The largest 54-hole lead by any golfer who then failed to win the tournament is five strokes, first in 1925 by Macdonald Smith and then again by Frenchman Jean Van de Velde in 1999.
McIlroy planned a session in the gym, a quiet meal and maybe a movie overnight to try and take his mind of all the historical significance and would return to the gym in the morning, he said, to warm up for his date with destiny.
“I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said before being pressed on what it would mean to become the third youngest player in history to win three majors following Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
“A lot of hype going into Augusta next year,” he quipped before his tone became serious. “Not a lot of people have achieved the career grand slam. And if everything goes the right way tomorrow to get three quarters of the way there is some achievement by the age of 25. I’d be in pretty illustrious company. So not getting ahead of ourselves, here, but yeah, it would mean an awful lot.
“But I’m going to try and put that out of my head. It would be way too much to sort of ponder. First things first. Just play a good solid round of golf tomorrow and if that means I’m going to Augusta next year with a bit of hype, then so be it.”
McIlroy has a happy history of sleeping well on 54-hole leads in majors, that meltdown at Augusta National aside. He led by six at Congressional in 2011 and went on to win the US Open by eight, the same margin of victory he enjoyed at Kaiwah Island the following year after taking a three shot lead into the final round of the US PGA Championship. His final round scores in those two majors? A cool 69 and 66 respectively.
A score under 70 Sunday will see him eclipse Tiger Woods’ record Open Championship score of 270 at Royal Liverpool and join the select company of Ted Ray (1912), Bobby Jones (1927), Gene Sarazen (1932), Henry Cotton (1934), Tom Weiskopf (1973) and Tiger Woods (2005) as the only Open champions to lead outright in all four rounds. A 67 would see him beat Greg Norman’s lowest winning score of 267 set at Royal St George’s in 1993. But he won’t be thinking about any of that come the first tee tomorrow at 2.40 (5.40pm UAE time) where he will joined by Rickie Fowler.
“I won’t go into the first couple of holes thinking about what score, or what I need to make on those holes, I just want to hit solid golf shots. I think that’s a big thing for me. Hit the fairway, hit the green. If you make a putt, great. If not, you go to the next hole. That’s the sort of way I’ll approach it.”
Soggy Saturday at Hoylake started much as Freaky Friday had for McIlroy – a bogey on the first. Playing together in the group ahead, Fowler and Garcia were clearly up for what turned into a shootout between three of golf’s brightest young guns; Jordan Spieth mightn’t have been in the picture but was not forgotten, equalling Darren Clarke for a best of the day 67.
Fowler in particular was up for the challenge, birding his first two holes, the fifth and sixth after that in an outward 32 (three under) and by the 12th, when he birdied again and McIlroy bogeyed, was tied for the lead. But threatened, McIlroy showed he has the biggest guns of all, birding the tough 14th with a 33 footer, before playing perhaps the definitive hole of the championship on 16, a driver and four iron to 21 feet for eagle. There was a bogey at 17 from the hay beyond the par four but then McIlroy rifled that five iron, perhaps the definitive shot of the Open, to 11 feet. How about six threes in your last eight holes to turn the screw?
Fowler started to wobble off the tee and finished with a 68, Garcia a 69. They fared better than McIlroy’s playing partners, Dustin Johnson signing for a 71 and Francesco Molinari sliding down to tie for 23rd with a sloppy 75 (Francesco’s brother Edoardo went in the other direction with a 68 and will be out in the third to last group Sunday with Victor Dubuisson, the Frenchman also carding a fine 68).
Fowler looks the best equipped to offer any sort of challenge to McIlroy and will draw solace from Paul Lawrie’s 1999 win at Carnoustie when the Scotsman fired a 67 to came from 10 shots back, with the help of Van de Velde’s calamitous closing 77. But the even the America, who started the third round six back and ended it there, knows this is McIlroy’s Claret Jug to lose.
“I’m looking forward to [hopefully] pulling off the start I had to today. If I’m able to go out and get off to a good start, maybe I can put a little bit of pressure on him, because he’s definitely in control of the golf tournament right now.” Indeed.
143rd Open Championship – Leading 54 hole scores
200 – Rory McIlroy (Northern Ireland) 66-66-68
206 – Rickie Fowler (USA) 69-69-68
207 – Sergio Garcia (Spain) 68-70-69; Dustin Johnson (USA) 71-65-71
208 – Victor Dubuisson (France) 74-66-68
209 – Edoardo Molinari (Italy) 68-73-68
210 – Matteo Manaserro (Italy) 67-75-68; Adam Scott (Australia) 68-73-69; Robert Karlsson (Sweden) 69-71-70; Jim Furyk (USA) 68-71-71; Charl Schwartzel (South Africa) 71-67-72