• Open Championship

McIlroy tightens his grip on the Claret Jug

Alex Perry at Royal Liverpool
July 19, 2014
Rory McIlroy turned the screw with eagles at 16 and 18 © Getty Images

Rory McIlroy rolls home a birdie putt at 14 and that familiar roar rings out around the western-most point of Royal Liverpool Golf Club.

At precisely the same moment, around 150 yards away at the 15th green, Rickie Fowler, tied for the lead, addresses a birdie putt of his own.

The very makeable putt is weak and never really threatens the cup. Fowler looks at the skies and hugs his putter. He's angry with himself, but, most importantly, he has allowed McIlroy into his head.

McIlroy happy with two-tee start

  • While the punters who made the trip to Hoylake may feel short-changed by the R&A's two-tee start that meant only around six-and-a-half hours of play on Saturday, Rory McIlroy was happy with the re-structuring.
  • "It is the second best decision the R&A has made this year," he said, "after announcing that The Open is headed back to Portrush."
  • McIlroy might be right, as the heavens opened roughly 20 minutes after he walked off the 18th tee - with the rain so hard he was almost shouting into the microphone during his press conference.
  • McIlroy will be pleased to know that, by the time he tees off at around 2pm on Sunday, conditions are expected to be dry with sunny spells.
  • "The support this week has been absolutely fantastic," McIlroy added. "Getting standing ovations coming up on the greens - even walking onto the 18th today I got goose bumps just from how loud it was and how much support I felt from them. It's been incredible.
  • "I said yesterday that I wanted to try and give them something to cheer for, and I'll try and go out and do the same thing tomorrow.
  • "It's a pleasure to play in front of crowds like this. They're very knowledgeable. I'll go out and enjoy that again tomorrow."

Three holes - and two bogeys - later, Fowler is five behind. McIlroy bombs home a long eagle putt at 16 then, via a scruffy bogey at 17, screams the most audacious 5-iron to eight feet and effortlessly rolls in another eagle. It will be a six-shot lead when they tee off together in the final group on Sunday.

If the young American overhauls McIlroy, there will be another Fowler in these parts who commands God-like status.

McIlroy will undoubtedly describe his third round at the Open Championship as "solid golf", but this was not just another master class in shot-making, it was a lesson in how to put pressure on your closest rivals.

If, come Sunday, McIlroy lifts the trophy he so desperately craves, many will cite that five-hole stretch as the moment the championship was won. But par saves at two, seven and eight were huge.

No one has ever lost golf's oldest major having led by more than five shots going into the final round.

Sunday should - should - be mere procession.

"Today my patience was rewarded," McIlroy said in his post-round news conference. "I didn't get off to the best of starts again, 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. But then I made a big par save on 13. And then to make that birdie putt on 14 was a bonus.

"I knew that Rickie was playing well in front - but I didn't know how well. I saw on 12 that he got to within one of me, and then I bogeyed the hole and then it was tied.

"But I never panicked. I didn't feel uncomfortable. I knew that I had some holes coming up that I could take advantage of and make some birdies on the way in.

"Obviously the finish speaks for itself. I was just sort of waiting for those two holes. I felt like I was driving the ball well, and if I could drive it on the fairway on 16 and 18, I knew that I would have irons into the greens for my second shots. And to be able to make two threes there coming in was very important, and obviously sets me up nicely for tomorrow."

We're good buddies and at the same time we both want to beat up on each other

Fowler, meanwhile, will return to his rented accommodation here in Hoylake to mentally prepare himself for a Sunday in the final pairing of a major championship - his second in a row having had the best seat in the house as Martin Kaymer stormed to US Open glory earlier this year.

Four birdies in his opening six holes, followed by a hat-trick of gains from 10 proved Fowler has it in him to go low on Sunday - and he has improved as the week has gone on.

He will also need McIlroy to crumble quite catastrophically, though he is only concentrating on his own game.

Fowler said: "Playing with Rory and being six back - the same position I was 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 tournament right now.

"I'm definitely satisfied with my game. I got off to a great start today through 12 holes and I was playing very solidly. I had two tee shots that slipped away from me a little bit on the back nine and one approach shot on 17. Three of those definitely cost me the three shots coming in.

"I will have the same game plan as the first three days. Bad swings happen and it's just unfortunate that I strung a few of those together and it cost me a couple of shots coming in. But I feel that I've given myself room for improvement every day. And I've gone out and taken advantage of that and improved little by little.

"It's my second final group in a major and I'm looking forward to getting out there tomorrow and seeing if I can put the same start on Rory as I did today.

"We're good buddies and at the same time we both want to beat up on each other as bad as possible. 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, and see if I can get myself in the mix, and maybe we'll be able to throw some blows back and forth."

Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson will play in the group ahead of McIlroy and Fowler. Garcia will be disappointed to not capitalise on a front-nine 32 that included four birdies which, at one point, had him within three of the lead.

Johnson's challenge, meanwhile, was severely dented by a run of three straight bogeys from the seventh. He carded a one-under 71 - the only player in the top 10 to fail to break 70.

Victor Dubuisson and Edoardo Molinari both carded 68s to move to eight- and seven-under respectively, while Matteo Manassero, Adam Scott, Robert Karlsson, Jim Furyk and Charl Schwartzel share seventh on six-under par.

2011 champion Darren Clarke carded a round-of-the-day 67 to move to a tie for 12th alongside a cluster of players at five-under including compatriot Graeme McDowell and last week's Scottish Open champion Justin Rose.

Tiger Woods, starting at the 10th, opened birdie-birdie before carding a double-bogey at the second and a triple-bogey at seven in his 73.

Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy first went head-to-head at the 2007 Walker Cup © Getty Images

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