Rickie Fowler flirted with the lead and the possibility of a final-round Open duel until Rory McIlroy stepped on the gas

July 20, 2014

HOYLAKE, England — The green on the par-3 13th hole at Royal Liverpool is a hike from the redbrick clubhouse and civilization as we know it. It’s about as timeless as any place in golf could be, hard by an estuary, surrounded by dunes covered with beach grasses, gulls in the air, gray skies above them. Bobby Jones, Robert De Vicenzo, Tiger Woods — they have all stood on that green on their way to winning Opens here and experienced all that. On Saturday, Rory McIlroy did, too.

But he had something they did not have: an electronic, make-no-mistake-about-it scoreboard staring straight at him, with illuminated names and numbers and real-time scoring information. And as he came off that green, the surprising news was staring him in the face: he and Rickie Fowler were tied for the lead at 12 under par. The game seemed liked it was just beginning.

And then came the next 90 minutes. It was Augusta-like, things changed so quickly.

2014 BRITISH OPEN PHOTOS: The Best Shots of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler From Royal Liverpool

Fowler, who teed off 11 minutes before McIlroy, played the last five holes in two over par. That may not sound particularly heinous, but he had been playing a spectacular round of golf on a warm, still day with soft greens and soft fairways. The last three holes are a short par-5, short par-4 and short par-5. Poor Rickie, a runner-up last month at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. He got to 12 under and finished at 10.

He’s been working closely with Butch Harmon and his swing has never looked tighter, more under control, with fewer moving parts. He seems to have more distance control. But learning how to play all 18 holes — and all 72 holes — is the hardest thing a talented, young (he’s 25) player has to learn. On Saturday, on the finishing holes, he went backwards while another 25-year-old golfer, McIlroy, went into sixth gear. And that’s why this 143rd British Open is essentially over after three rounds, just as the U.S. Open was on Saturday night.

At Pinehurst, Martin Kaymer had a five-shot lead through 54 links-style holes. At Hoylake, McIlroy has a six-shot lead through 54 links-style holes. McIlroy doesn’t have to do anything special to win on Sunday because he did what he needed to do on Saturday.

He came off that 13th green, climbed up the dune that is the 14th tee and drilled one down the middle on the par-4, knocked an iron on the green and drained a long putt. A birdie on the heels of Fowler’s bogey. He stepped on the pedal. This is a course you can overwhelm with length, just as Congressional was, where he won the 2011 U.S. Open, just as Kiawah was, where he won the 2012 PGA Championship.

On Saturday, McIlroy shot an even-par 68. Yes, we know the scorecard shows that Hoylake is a traditional par-72, with four par-3s and four par-5s. But when all four par-5s are easily in reach in two shots, as they are for McIlroy here, par takes a beating. That’s why he will not have to do anything special to win his third major championship. That is, not special by his standards.

As for that awful phrase, links-style. Royal Liverpool is a superb course, and a true links. But part of links golf is that the nature of the whole thing changes radically depending on the conditions. Links golf in full is windblown, dry, fast. This week, especially if, like McIlroy, you played early on Thursday and late on Friday, you played a course that was perfect for bombing driver. McIlroy hit a 395-yard drive on Friday on 17. Woods could have done the same in 2006, but the fairways were so dry there was a good chance the ball would keep running until it was stopped by rough or a bunker. The grass this year is just soft enough and green enough that it will stop in the fairway of the first cut. That’s a significant difference.

“I never panicked,” McIlroy said Saturday night, referring to how tight things had become, for one brief shining moment, between he and Fowler. “I didn’t feel uncomfortable.”

And maybe Fowler did. He’s a fabulous talent, but his fame exceeds his accomplishments. He has won one Tour event. McIlroy is miles ahead of him. He’s won six times on the PGA Tour alone.

“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 golf tournament right now,” Fowler said good naturedly. He’s a good-natured young man.

They play in the Sunday’s final twosome, going off at 9:40 a.m. East Coast time. In all likelihood, he will have an excellent view of what it takes to close out a win with a six-shot lead. Yes, Hall of Fame talents have blown large, large leads in majors. Arnold Palmer had a seven-shot lead at the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic Club. Greg Norman had a six-shot lead at the 1996 Masters.

But Hoylake in 2014 is not Olympic in ‘66 or Augusta National in ‘96. On Sunday, the course will play even shorter than it did on Saturday after heavy Saturday night rains. On Sunday, McIlroy can pass Norman on the career majors list (they both now have two), though Palmer’s seven are still a long, long ways away.

First things first. McIlroy needs to go out and shoot a round of even par on Sunday. That is, his personal par of 68. If he does that, he’ll be three-fourths of the way to the career grand slam.

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