The Open 2014 leaderboard: Rory McIlroy soars ahead on the wings of eagles
Northern Irishman takes six-stroke lead into today’s final round after threes at the 16th and 18th snuff out dogged challenge of Fowler, writes Kevin Garside at Royal Liverpool
The lead stands at six, the biggest margin at The Open for 40 years. Rory McIlroy’s third-round aggregate of 16 under par after his four-under-par 68 yesterday is the lowest since Tiger Woods at his peak in 2000. Hoylake is no St Andrews in the sun, and if we are to go measure for measure you might give the Northern Irishman’s round the edge given the circumstances of its delivery.
With six holes to play McIlroy was level with Rickie Fowler, and this after starting the day six clear of the American and four ahead of the field. We have been here before with McIlroy. The last time he led by that margin, going into the last day at the Masters in 2011, he was crushed in the Augusta vice. That was his first immersion in a major championship. That was McIlroy the boy. This is the man.
The triumphs, like the defeats, are epic, the margin of victory at his first two majors standing at eight strokes. Here he is on the verge of his third, and were he to go one better and win by nine, McIlroy would set the biggest margin of the modern era, since that 19th-century hickory warrior Tom Morris Jnr, in fact, 144 years ago.
If the meaning of “bottle” is delivering at the point of greatest demand, then doff your cap to this fellow. Two eagles over the closing three holes. Come on.
They were the only ones recorded at the 16th and 18th holes all day. And consider this: the meteorological Armageddon forecast subsided when McIlroy went to the tee at 11am, and returned with a vengeance at 4pm, just as he finished. Maybe he has a line in to a higher authority after all.
There were many key moments during his round when McIlroy was required to hole putts for par, but the defining nugget would have to be the eagle at 16, for that was the hammer that smashed the resistance of the chasing pack. Fowler had just bogeyed the very same hole. As McIlroy’s ball rolled towards the cup you could feel the tension drain from the day, maybe from the contest.
McIlroy raised his putter toward the heavens to celebrate what was a three-shot swing, taking his advantage from two to five. It looked and felt like the fulcrum on which fate tipped him towards nirvana. “I didn’t get off to the best of starts, again, and had a few chances around the turn to make birdies,” he said afterwards. “I wasn’t able to do that and then dropped a shot [at the 12th]. But then I made a big par save on 13. And then to make that birdie putt on 14 was a bonus. Obviously the finish speaks for itself. I was just sort of waiting for those two holes.”
It had been hell of a day. McIlroy’s four-shot overnight lead was halved at the first when his careless bogey was further punished by Dustin Johnson’s rapier birdie. Johnson would fall away, only to be replaced by another young American on the charge.
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Fowler raced to 10 under par with four birdies in his opening six holes. By the 12th, with McIlroy in neutral trying not to make mistakes, Fowler had a share of the lead after a hat-trick of steals against par.
Today reprises their third-round pairing at Royal St George’s in 2011, when they started the day on equal terms and ended it with Fowler five to the good. It was a filthy afternoon. Fowler dogged it out. McIlroy folded.
But that was then. McIlroy is approaching a peak that few in the game have the capacity to reach. His Australian Open victory last December, edging Adam Scott at the last, drew a line under the annus horribilis of 2013. The victory at Wentworth two months ago, overturning a seven-shot deficit on the final day, was another significant step. And here he stands on the brink of arguably his greatest triumph.
“I’ve won from seven back this year, so I know how leads can go very quickly,” he said. “I’m not taking anything for granted.
“ If the guys in front of me had just finished a little better, finished the way I did, then my lead wouldn’t have been as much. It seemed like Sergio [Garcia] and Rickie struggled down the stretch. But that could have been a completely different story. A lot can happen. I’ve been on the right side of it and I’ve been on the wrong side of it.
“You can’t let yourself think about winning or whatever. You’ve just got to stay in the present. That’s what I’m going to try to do for all 18 holes tomorrow.”
The two-tee start was in retrospect an overreaction to a wild forecast. The weathermen made a Michael Fish of it, but they were persuasive. So for the first time in 150-odd years The Open began at the first and the 10th tees in groups of three to protect against rain that by late morning had become light and intermittent. The net effect of the rain was to turn Hoylake into a birdie fest.
No wind equals no test for the elite golfer and, softened by the morning rains, the course just rolled over on its back to present a tummy for tickling. And tickle it they did.
Starting off the 10th tee, Darren Clarke reprised the Saturday of his great Open victory at Royal St George’s by firing six birdies in seven holes around the turn. Fowler and Garcia had it going for spells, and finally McIlroy trumped them all as only he can. Today promises to be some coronation.
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