THE official whose job it is to engrave the winner’s name on the Claret Jug could be forgiven for getting started. Rory McIlroy did not just extend his lead at Royal Liverpool yesterday, he took a grip of the 143rd Open Championship and all but squeezed the life from it.
In his third-round 68, there was an early slip by the Northern Irishman, as well as a brief grind when his rivals drew near, but just when it mattered most, he flexed his muscles and produced two breathtaking eagles in the last three holes that battered the rest of the field almost into submission.
McIlroy leads the tournament on 16 under par, six clear of second-placed Rickie Fowler, who also shot 68, with Sergio Garcia (69) and Dustin Johnson (71) a shot further back. Barring an almost unthinkable collapse in today’s final round, the man who has already won the US Open and the PGA will secure the third leg of a career grand slam and become only the third player – after Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus – to have won three major titles by the age of 25.
“If everything goes the right way, to get three-quarters of the way there is some achievement by the age of 25,” said McIlroy. “I’d be in pretty illustrious company. So not getting ahead of ourselves, but yes, it would mean an awful lot. I never thought that I’d be able to be in this position. I didn’t think that I’d even have the chance at 25 to go for three legs of the Grand Slam.”
The title is his to throw away, so today will be a test more of his nerve than his golf. Last night, the plan was to go to the gym, have some dinner and watch a film, before focusing only on the nuts and bolts of his golf, rather than the historic implications of a third major.
“I’m going to try to put all of that out of my head,” he said. “It would be way too much to think about and way too much to ponder. First things first. Just play a good, solid round of golf. You have to think about how you’re going to control your emotions, try to stay completely in the present.”
It has worked for him so far. Despite sleeping on a lead since Thursday’s first round, he has repeatedly produced the goods. Yesterday, his driver and his putter provided the foundation of a performance that took full advantage of conditions that were far easier than expected.
Apocalyptic warnings of adverse weather meant that a series of rather alarming precautions had been taken, from sandbags and squeegie mops to a revised third-round format aimed at minimising the day’s playing time. Competing as threeballs, the players were given a two-tee start – at the first and tenth – for the first time in Open history.
The unusual circumstances meant that there was a subdued, almost surreal, atmosphere at times. Reports of an approaching system by the name of Spanish Plume seemed to freak out the hushed galleries, who must have been holding their breath under the leaden skies. And when the rain came, as it did much less frequently than forecast, the need for umbrellas made applause tricky.
Hoylake, though, somehow escaped many of the electrical hot spots that were pictured, on a Met Office map, drifting across the area. The rain was not so heavy or sustained as it had been overnight, and the conditions lent themselves to low scoring. In fact, if you kept out of the rough – now wet and straggly – and you had a good caddie, there was nothing not to like. Soft greens, warm air and scarcely a breath of wind to complicate the challenge.
By 11am, the entire field was out, including McIlroy, defending his four-shot overnight lead. In a faint echo of his wobbly start to the second round, he wasted a perfect drive by sinking his short approach into a greenside bunker. He splashed out – just – got down in two putts – just – only to see second-placed Dustin Johnson, his playing partner, birdie from close range. Just 15 minutes after striking his first blow, his lead had been cut to two.
On Friday, McIlroy also opened with a bogey, but he soon gathered momentum. It was a similar story here, as he steadied himself with a succession of pars before rallying on the fifth to repair the early damage. A huge drive, followed by a 4-iron to the green and two putts ensured that he was back on 12 under.
Fowler and Garcia, in the group behind, kept him on his toes for a while. The American, in particular, was hitting them bigger and closer than he ever has. Birdies on the first, second, fifth, sixth, tenth and 11th took him to within a shot of the lead, but it was on the 12th that he and his Spanish playing partner, also going low, were at their most spectacular.
It was a hole that said everything about their respective talents, and perhaps also a little about the frailties that have denied Garcia a major title. Fowler spun his approach so close it was as though his ball was on a string. Then, Garcia did the same, only more so, but his agonising failure to convert the birdie was a reminder of his career-long weakness.
That, though, was as close as they came to matching McIlroy. The world No 8 was making hard work of it at times, scrambling for his life after the odd wayward approach, but as Garcia stagnated, and Fowler dropped a couple of strokes, his lead was restored and eventually lengthened by a crucial blow at the par-5 16th. A driver, 4-iron and a putt secured eagle and, suddenly, a five-shot lead.
Fowler kept his hopes alive with an inspired chip from the sand that set up birdie on 18, but even there, he was overshadowed by you know who. A few minutes later, McIlroy was all over the flag with a 5-iron, before sinking the putt for that second eagle.
The crowds, hitherto muffled, could not contain themselves. “Walking on to the 18th, I got goose bumps with how loud it was, just how much support I felt from them,” said McIlroy. “It’s been incredible. I said yesterday that I wanted to try and give them something to cheer. I’ll try and go out and do the same thing tomorrow.”