HOYLAKE, England – Rory McIlroy looked as though he had just thrown a knockout punch at the British Open, and it was only Saturday.
When he rolled in a 10-foot eagle putt on the final hole for a 4-under 68, he straightened his back, stared defiantly at thousands of fans crammed into the horseshoe arena around the 18th green at Royal Liverpool and lightly pumped his fist.
He went from being tied for the lead to six shots ahead of Rickie Fowler in just over an hour. And suddenly, the biggest challenge facing the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland was reminding himself that he had one more round left.
McIlroy can’t afford to picture his name etched on the base of that silver claret jug. He can’t think about what it will be like next April to drive down Magnolia Lane at Augusta National with a shot at becoming the sixth player to capture the career Grand Slam.
He knows that from experience, good and bad. He blew a four-shot lead at the Masters in 2011 and shot 80 in the final round. He had an eight-shot lead at the U.S. Open two months later and set two records to win by eight. Just two months ago, McIlroy came from seven shots behind to win by seven.
It looks like a lost cause for Fowler, Sergio Garcia and anyone else trying to chase down a guy who has won both his majors by eight shots. The six-shot lead was the largest at The Open since Tiger Woods led by six at St. Andrews in 2000.
Even so, McIlroy was doing his best to preach caution.
“A lot can happen,” he said. “And 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 forward. You’ve just got to completely stay in the moment, and that’s what I’m going to try to do for all 18 holes tomorrow.”
History is on his side.
No one has ever lost a six-shot lead in the 121 years that The Open has been contested over 72 holes. McIlroy was at 16-under 200.
“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,” Fowler said after a 68. “Because he’s definitely in control of the golf tournament right now.”
Fowler tried to do his part on a cloudy Saturday with occasional rain, but not nearly what the R&A expected when it went to a two-tee start for the first time in history. Fowler, who was six shots behind going into the third round, ran off three straight birdies to start the back nine and shared the lead when McIlroy made bogey on No. 12.
It all changed so quickly.
Fowler made a bogey on the 14th hole. McIlroy, playing in the group behind, drilled a 35-foot birdie putt that put his lead back to two shots.
“Rickie was just getting close to me,” McIlroy said. “I could hear the cheers in front of me. I just wanted to get ahead. To hole a putt like that was huge.”
McIlroy then blasted a drive on the par-5 16th hole and hit 4-iron from 252 yards over a pot bunker to the left side of the green and made a 15-foot eagle putt to restore his lead to five shots, as Fowler had driven into a pot bunker and made a bogey.