HOYLAKE, England -- For a moment, we had a golf tournament. Now it looks like a coronation.
Rory McIlroy left the door open after an even-par front nine but kicked it closed on the final five holes, capped by twin eagles on the par-5 16th and 18th holes at Royal Liverpool on Saturday, leaving him squarely in control to win the 143rd British Open. McIlroy’s four-under 68 has him six shots clear of Rickie Fowler (68) and seven shots ahead of Sergio Garcia (69) and Dustin Johnson (71).
Fowler and Garcia started the day six shots behind McIlroy, but thanks to birdie-filled rounds of 68 and 69, they made charges at the leader. After nine holes, McIlroy’s lead was down to three and it looked like the leader was wobbling.
McIlroy’s pair of eagles coming home extended his lead to the largest 54-hole margin at the British Open since Tiger Woods led by six at St. Andrews in 2000.
“I never panicked,” McIlroy said after his round. “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. As I said, I was just very patient today and just waited for my chance.”
The first chance came on the 14th hole, the third most difficult on the course. Fowler bogeyed it in the group ahead of McIlroy after grabbing a share of the lead at 12-under, and was lining up a birdie putt on the par-3 15th to try to get it back. Before Fowler could hit his putt, a massive roar echoed from the 14th green.
McIlroy had dropped a 33-foot birdie to stretch his lead back to two shots. Fowler could only shake his head and smile.
“It was a very good putting round,” McIlroy said. “Sort of momentum putts. Putts that you really need to make just to keep the round going. Those were the most important for me today.”
A stormy forecast forced a two-tee start for the first time in British Open history, and players went off in threesomes early in the morning. The weather delays never materialized, but scattered showers early in the day left a soggy Royal Liverpool ripe for low scoring.
Garcia rebounded from a bogey on his first hole and rode a birdie barrage up the leaderboard. Fowler took advantage early, too, as four birdies on his front nine pushed him into McIlroy’s rearview mirror. After three more to start his back nine, Fowler was riding right alongside McIlroy.
One hour later, Fowler was six shots back.
After his birdie at the 14th, McIlroy coaxed in an eagle on the par-5 16th on the back of a superb 4-iron that rolled to 21 feet. He bogeyed the 17th, but an 11-footer for eagle on the 18th stretched his lead to a margin that only Greg Norman (1996 Masters) has managed to give up in a final round in major history.
“Even though [McIlroy] started a little bit slow today, he really got going on the back nine and started making birdies and a couple of eagles,” Garcia said. “It looked like he might have a one- or two-shot lead, and now all of a sudden he's got a six-shot lead.”
Garcia and Johnson will be paired in the next-to-last group on Sunday. Johnson owns the low round of the tournament (65 on Friday) but three consecutive bogeys to close his front nine on Saturday cost him a chance to play in the final group.
Darren Clarke, the 2011 British Open champion, started the day at even par, but matched Jordan Spieth for the low round on Saturday with a 5-under 67. The noticeably slimmer Clarke credits his workout regimen for his improved play.
“If you’ve got 50 pounds or 60 pounds sitting in front of your gut, you’re going to swing a lot slower through the ball than what you would do otherwise,” Clarke said.
To celebrate march up the leaderboard, the 45-year-old didn’t head to the range, but instead, the gym.
“Not quite Jane Fonda’s workout, but I’ll go to the gym this afternoon and lift some weights for 20, 25 minutes,” Clarke said. “I’ll probably have a few glasses of wine, but that’s about it. I’m not a teetotaler angel or anything, far from that.”
McIlroy is attempting to become the first wire-to-wire British Open champion since Tiger Woods dominated the Old Course at St. Andrews in 2005. He entered the day with a four-shot lead over Johnson, after back-to-back 66s to open the tournament. Conjuring images of his runaway, eight-shot victories in the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional and 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah, he was in total command of all facets of his game.
“I think whenever you have such a big lead, you really can't think about anyone else but yourself,” McIlroy said. “You have to think about how you're going to control your emotions. How you're going to control whatever thoughts you have, trying to stay completely in the present and focus on what you need to do.”
Playing with fellow 25-year-old Rickie Fowler -- who will appear in his second-straight final pairing in a major -- will help. The two are neighbors, and their friendship dates back to their battle as teenagers at the 2007 Walker Cup. McIlroy was also part of the three-man playoff that saw Fowler claim his first and only PGA Tour title at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship.
“We don't live too far away from each other in Florida, so I see him around all the time,” McIlroy said. “We’ve become pretty close. I think it'll be quite a comfortable grouping for both of us tomorrow.”
It wouldn’t be as comfortable if McIlroy hadn’t stepped on the throat of the field behind him with two eagles in the closing three holes. Instead, McIlroy is sleeping on the lead in a major for the third-straight night.
“It could have been a completely different story,” McIlroy said. “You can't let yourself think forward. You can't let yourself think about winning. You've just got to completely stay in the moment and stay in the present, and that's what I'm going to try to do for all 18 holes tomorrow.”