Rory McIlroy moves a step closer to British Open title

Two eagles in final three holes keep McIlroy in pole position for a third Major win

Rory McIlroy celebrates a birdie during day three of the British Open. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire.

Rory McIlroy celebrates a birdie during day three of the British Open. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA Wire.

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 16:23

Rory McIlroy has the art of making it all look so easy. On a Saturday that was anything but the moving day so beloved of players chasing a leader, the 25-year-old Ulsterman simply and majestically tightened his grip on the 143rd British Open with a stunning 68 for a 54-hole total of 200, 16-under-par.

Twice in the closing stages of a round, McIlroy punched fist pumps into the air after sinking putts for eagles on the 16th and 18th greens. On each occasion, his muscles, toned in rigorous gym workouts which have transformed his body, rippled under his Swoosh-adorned top as if to signal that the boy wonder had grown into some kind of superman.

McIlroy now finds himself on the cusp of a third Major title, to add to the US Open win of 2011 and his US PGA success of 2012. Only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have reached such a landmark younger: the Golden Bear was 23, Woods was 24. McIlroy turned 25 last May.

The irony of the R&A’s decision to outwit an anticipated thunderstorm by sending players out in three-balls with two-tee starts wasn’t lost on anyone. So it was that players enjoyed favourable conditions - hardly any wind and muggy heat - and had finished only half-an-hour before the skies opened, unleashing a torrent of rain clouds on the course.

By then, McIlroy had worked his magic. The highlights of his round came late - on the 16th and 18th holes - with those eagles that had the huge galleries saluting his magnificence. On the 16th, he hit a four-iron approach from 248 yards to 20 feet and made the eagle; on the 18th, he hit a five-iron approach from 237 yards to 10 feet and rolled in the putt as if saluting his own destiny. He had sent out a message, loud and clear.

It hadn’t all been plain sailing, with Rickie Fowler - friends going back to their Walker Cup match at Royal Co Down in 2007 and now near-neighbours in Florida - mounting the greatest pressure on McIlroy. Fowler, in fact, moved level - on 12-under - after McIlroy bogeyed the 13th. However, the run-up was one of contrasts: McIlroy upped the gears to race clear, while Fowler’s charge stalled.

McIlroy, who has taken things easy in the evenings when sitting on leads after both the first and second rounds, planned on following the routine of watching a movie in the rented house, and - having made a late final round charge to win the BMW PGA championship in May - was intent on keeping control of his own destiny.

“I’ve won from seven back this year, so I know how leads can go very quickly. And I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said.

Of being on the verge of claiming a third Major of his career and of completing three-quarters of the Grand Slam, he observed: “Not a lot of people have achieved the career Grand Slam. And if everything goes the right way (Sunday), to get to that three-quarters of the way there is some achievement by the age of 25. I’d be in pretty illustrious company.

“So not getting ahead of ourselves, here, but yeah, it would mean an awful lot. I never thought that I’d be able to be in this position. I didn’t think that I’d even have the chance at 25 to go for three legs of the Grand Slam.

“So I’m going to try to put all of that out of my head. It would be way too much to think about and way too much to sort of ponder. First things first: just play a good solid round of golf . . . if that means that I’m going to Augusta next year with a bit of hype, then so be it.”

As the chief pursuer, Fowler will have to take a different approach to McIlroy. “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,” said Fowler.

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