HOYLAKE, England – A historic Saturday at the Open Championship – the byproduct of a surprising, perhaps even questionable, break with 143 years of tradition by the R&A – quickly gave way to what seems destined to be another final-round formality for Rory McIlroy.
If his first two major victories, boat-race affairs that he won by a combined 16 strokes, were coronations, it will take a collapse to make Sunday anything more compelling than a stroll.
In less time than it took the English meteorologist to rectify the Day 3 forecast at Hoylake, which prompted officials to use a two-tee start for the first time in the championship’s long history, the Northern Irishman went from being tied for the lead alongside a charging Rickie Fowler to six strokes clear.
Things don’t swing that fast in Las Vegas.
Whatever glimmer of hope Fowler & Co. enjoyed on a gloomy afternoon along the Dee Estuary was quickly washed away with two eagles over McIlroy’s final three holes for a third-round 68.
Officials don’t start engraving the claret jug on Saturdays, but they could be safe to start with an “R” considering that the 143rd Open appears destined to be a two-man race, and that’s only if McIroy cooperates.
Rory v. Rickie, Rickie v. Rory – as enticing as a bona fide clash of 20-somethings on the game’s grandest stage may sound, it may be wishful thinking after McIlroy slipped on the red cape on his closing turn.
But that didn’t stop Fowler from saying the right things.
“If I can go out and learn from what I did there at the U.S. Open and try and get off to a bit of a better start, maybe I'm able to put a bit of pressure on Rory, and maybe we can get into a fun little match come the back nine,” said Fowler, who also set out on Sunday at last month’s U.S. Open in the final two-ball some five strokes behind Martin Kaymer.
Fowler’s fortunes seemed much brighter just an hour earlier, when he tied McIlroy through 12 holes at 12 under before playing his last six holes in 2 over par for a third-round 68 and 10-under total.
It also didn’t help that McIlroy’s killer instincts kicked in.
From 252 yards McIlroy drilled a 4-iron to 25 feet at the par-5 16th hole and rolled in the eagle putt. Two holes later he hoisted a 5-iron into the grey skies from 239 yards to 10 feet to ignite the partisan crowds with another eagle.
In pure Darwinian terms this is simple for McIlroy, “Six shots is better than five, seven is better than six, eight is better than seven,” he said.
Or, put another way, no player has ever given up more than a five-stroke lead at the Open Championship and McIlroy – who has now completed the 54-hole Grand Slam, having led through three rounds at all four majors – has proven himself adept at playing from the front. He converted an eight-shot lead to win the 2011 U.S. Open and a three-stroke advantage at the 2012 PGA Championship.
“I’m very confident and it helps that I’ve been in this position before,” an understated McIlroy explained.
But then he’s also been on the other side of that fine Sunday line. McIlroy was four clear through 54 holes at the 2011 Masters and officials at Augusta National are still looking for the ball he airmailed into the cabins left of the 10th fairway on his way to a closing 80.
“Anything can happen on a links golf course,” reasoned Tom Watson.
And Old Tom would know. Watson endured a late heartbreak in 2009 at Turnberry, but for that to happen on Sunday McIlroy will have to be in a giving mood.
It also helps that Fowler enjoys a surprising advantage in head-to-head duels with the McIlroy.
At the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal Country Down in Northern Ireland, Fowler beat McIlroy in a Sunday four-ball match and in 2010 the American was named the Tour’s Rookie of the Year over McIlroy in a curious vote considering the tandem’s record in 2010.
Two years later Fowler clipped McIlroy again at the Wells Fargo Championship, closing with a 69 and beating the Ulsterman in a playoff.
There’s also no shortage of would-be challengers aligned behind McIlroy. Sergio Garcia (9 under), who bogeyed the 17th hole on Day 3 to slip out of second place, will again try to end his major drought, as will Dustin Johnson, whose title hopes were likely derailed by three consecutive bogeys before the turn on Saturday.
Even Victor Dubuisson, the first Frenchman since Jean Van de Velde famously waded into the burn at the 1999 championship, joined the pool party thanks to a third-round 68 to move to 8 under.
All those wishful scenarios, however, seem destined to take a back seat on Sunday at Royal Pooling Water when McIlroy sets out in pursuit of the third leg of the career Grand Slam.
“If everything goes the right way tomorrow to get three-quarters of the way there is some achievement by the age of 25,” McIlroy allowed. “I'd be in pretty illustrious company. So not getting ahead of ourselves, here, but yeah, it would mean an awful lot.”
No, it would be historic.