Hoylake: Rory McIlroy left the door invitingly ajar for a charging pack led by Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia, before slamming it shut with a dazzling finish on Saturday to lead the Open by six strokes with one round left.
The Northern Irishman began the day four shots clear of Dustin Johnson, was reeled in by inspired American Fowler after 12 holes, but magnificent eagles at the 16th and 18th saw him disappear over the horizon with a 16-under-par total of 200 at a rain-soaked Royal Liverpool course.
It is 50 years since a player went into the fourth round of the Open with a bigger lead, on that occasion Tony Lema had taken a seven-stroke advantage into Sunday at St Andrews in 1964.
Yet, for much of the third round on a links course softened to perfection by stormy weather, McIlroy seemed in real danger of missing out on his fair share of the birdie feast which allowed 17 players to shoot sub-70 rounds and 35 to break par.
After 13 holes, he was level par for the day and, with dark clouds brewing overhead, Fowler was breathing down his neck. He responded with an incredible 3-3-3-3-5-3 climax to move clear. Only an extraordinary turnaround on Sunday can prevent him completing a first Open triumph to add to the US Open and US PGA titles he won in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Should he close the deal on Sunday, the 25-year-old McIlroy will have completed three legs of the career slam on Sunday, leaving just the Masters title missing from his collection.
Like McIlroy, Fowler also carded a four-under 68 but three bogeys over the closing five holes left him ruing what might have been as he chases a first major title. “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, who will play alongside McIlroy in the final round, said. “He’s definitely in control of the tournament right now.”
Spaniard Garcia, who hit back from a poor start in which he found two greenside bunkers at the first, is seven shots adrift in a tie for third place with Johnson after a round of 69. Frenchman Victor Dubuisson is on eight under.
Darren Clarke, the 2011 champion, fired the day’s joint best round of 67 but three-times winner Tiger Woods, who started on the 10th along with half the field, was wallowing in a distant 58th place at three over par after a rusty 73.
Last year’s champion Phil Mickelson fared slightly better than his old sparring partner with a one-under 71 but his hopes of retaining the title are over. McIlroy looked anxious early on, finding sand with his second shot at the first and then missing a par putt after an under-cooked bunker shot.
His heart was racing at the second when he badly misjudged a birdie putt and left himself an awkward return which he holed.
A birdie at the par-five fifth got him back to level par for the day but he was in trouble after driving into deep sodden rough at the long par-four seventh. After chopping out sideways to the fairway he pitched into the green and rattled in a brave 15-foot par putt to put distance between himself and Johnson, who bogeyed.
With Fowler snapping at his heels McIlroy was unable to make another birdie until the par-four 11th, only to hand back a shot at the next hole after finding the rough off the tee. The 14th proved crucial.
Shortly after Fowler, playing in the group ahead along with Garcia, got into trouble at the 454-yard par-four and dropped a shot, McIlroy fired in a laser-like 30-foot birdie putt and from then the shackles came off.
Sensing the perfect moment to strike a hammer blow on his rivals, he attacked the remaining par-fives with relish, eagling the 16th and 18th to huge roars from the galleries.
Fowler, runner-up at the US Open last month and fifth at the Masters, began with two birdies and picked up further shots on the fifth, sixth and 10th before rolling in a monster putt at the 11th to reach 11 under par.