RORY McIlroy issued an ominous warning to his rivals at the 143rd Open Championship when he spoke last night about the “inner peace” with which he seized control at Royal Liverpool in yesterday’s third round.
The 25-year-old Northern Irishman is on 12 under par after a second consecutive 66 put him four clear of second-placed Dustin Johnson, with a group of six players – including Sergio Garcia – two strokes further back.
A series of poor second-round showings this year had led to fears of another ‘Freaky Friday’ for McIlroy, but there were seven birdies and just one bogey in a performance of almost effortless brilliance.
However, predicted heavy rain and thunderstorms mean a two-tee start will be used for the first time in the tournament’s 154-year history for today’s third round. Play is scheduled to begin at 9am off the first and tenth tees. That compressed schedule would allow for up to five hours of delays and enable the round to be completed. The Open has always used a one-tee start, but officials say the decision to use a second for the 70-plus players in groups of three would allow the tournament to be “in a better place on Sunday.”
Whatever the weather, with a US Open and a US PGA title already under his belt, McIlroy is halfway to securing the third leg of a career grand slam. If his progress around the links in today’s third round is half as serene as it was yesterday, the rest of the field will be making up the numbers. “I don’t know if I can describe it,” said McIlroy. “It’s just like I have an inner peace on the golf course. I just feel very comfortable. I’m very comfortable doing what I’m doing right now. It’s hard to describe. I wish I could get into it more often. I think it’s a combination of confidence, being mentally strong and mentally aware of everything.”
Despite a bogey at the first, McIlroy slipped into gear with a birdie on the sixth, before pulling away from the field as the afternoon progressed. While others, including Tiger Woods, fell out of contention, the leader just got better and better, especially off the tee, from where he tamed several holes with a series of spectacular drives.
“Some people call it the zone,” he said. “It’s just a state of mind where you think clearly. Everything seems to be on the right track. Whenever you play this well, you always wonder how you’ve played so badly before. And whenever you’ve played so badly, you always wonder how you play so well. I’m happy where my game is at the minute, and hopefully I can keep up the solid play for another couple of days. There’s still two rounds left, but I’m in a great position.”
The weather will not be on his side, however. An amber warning issued by the Met Office prompted the R&A to rearrange the format for today’s third round so that delays can be accommodated. With thunderstorms expected to peak between 2am and 8am this morning, those who made the halfway cut will play in groups of three in a two-tee start.
McIlroy insists that he will rise to the challenge. After playing in the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen last week, he says that he is prepared for any conditions.
“I’ve seen so many different forecasts – a lot of rain and not much wind, a bit of rain and a lot of wind. And I feel like I’m ready for whatever conditions come because I’ve practised the last few weeks in links-type conditions.”
McIlroy found an unlikely backer in Woods, who crashed to a 77. The American, who only just survived the cut, admitted that his own chances of winning were so remote that he would need a comeback that eclipsed Paul Lawrie’s in 1999. He admitted that McIlroy was difficult to stop when he was in this kind of mood. “It’s not a surprise,” said Woods. “He’s done this before. He’s won, I think, both of his majors by eight, I believe. Once he gets going, he can make a lot of birdies and he plays pretty aggressively to begin with. And when he’s going, he can get it going pretty good.”