HOYLAKE, England – They’ve already trashed tradition once this week, so what’s another?
On Sunday, they might as well swap out the Open’s traditional yellow flags for something, say, white.
This thing is over.
Rory McIlroy made sure of that Saturday, slamming the door with two macho eagles in the last three holes for a 4-under 68 in conditions that were far better than anticipated at Royal Liverpool. At 16-under 200, Boy Wonder is six shots clear of Rickie Fowler (68) and seven ahead of Sergio Garcia (69) and Dustin Johnson (71).
His six-shot advantage is the second-largest 54-hole lead at an Open in the past half-century, and even more history awaits McIlroy if – sorry, when – he closes it out on Sunday.
Like Phil Mickelson a year ago, an Open victory would give McIlroy, just 25, the third leg of the career Grand Slam.
“What would that mean?”he was asked afterward.
“A lot of hype going into Augusta next year,” he replied, laughing.
First things first, though, because for a while Saturday it looked like we were in store for a final-round shootout.
McIlroy got off to a sloppy start with a bogey on No. 1, and then played his next nine holes in only 1 under when Hoylake – green, soft and lush – was yielding more birdies than it had all week.
His four-shot overnight lead was halved after the opening hole. It was all gone when he bogeyed the par-4 12th. But that’s when McIlroy made a crafty up-and-down from right of 13 green and got rolling with a 40-foot bomb on 14.
Most impressive, however, was his work down the stretch. On the par-5 16th, he knocked a 252-yard 4-iron shot to 20 feet for eagle, and on the home hole he coolly hit 5-iron from 239 yards to 10 feet for a closing 3.
“I was just sort of waiting for those two holes,” he said. “It was nice to be able to come up with the goods when I needed them.”
Only one player in history has coughed up a six-shot lead in a major: Greg Norman, in 1996. Good thing for McIlroy, then, that he already has his Masters collapse out of the way.
Since then, he’s only won his majors in routs.
He went wire-to-wire at Congressional in 2011, where he pushed his three-shot lead to six and then eight. At the 2012 PGA, his weekend 66-67 at Kiawah erased a two-shot deficit and gave him another eight-shot major victory.
“I know how leads can go very quickly,” he cautioned. “I’m not taking anything for granted. A lot can happen. I’ve been on the right side of it, and I’ve been on the wrong side of it.
“That’s why you can’t let yourself think forward. You can’t let yourself think about winning or whatever it is. You’re 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.”
Martin Kaymer made similar remarks on the eve of the U.S. Open’s final round, and he extended his five-shot lead to eight on the last day.
In the final group that Sunday at Pinehurst was Fowler, who double-bogeyed his fourth hole and never was a threat. As much as the fans encouraged Fowler and craved a competition, the closest any player drew that day was four shots. Late on the back nine, the only mystery was how Kaymer would celebrate.
“There just wasn’t really any pressure put on Martin,” said Fowler, and, to be sure, he won’t have the benefit of a home-crowd advantage on this major Sunday.
Only a final-round collapse – in addition to some exemplary play from the pursuers – could add some drama to the proceedings, but even that scenario seems unlikely.
A few years ago, McIlroy was criticized for being a fair-weather player, that he only enjoyed competing in a dome. Benign conditions were exactly what he encountered in the third round, when the wind never blew more than 10 mph, and the forecast for the finale doesn’t look fierce, either.
More than that, though, McIlroy has destroyed the par 5s this week, playing the four long holes in a combined 11 under for the week. That means the rest of the pack essentially has 14 holes to make up ground. Good luck.
Fowler struck all the right notes Saturday afternoon, saying that he must stick to his game plan, that he must get off to a fast start, that he must put some pressure on his fellow 20-something.
“Maybe we can get into a fun little match come the back nine,” he said.
Yes, that would be fun.
But sorry, Rickie: By the back nine Sunday, this thing might have long been over.