Rory McIlroy overcame a slow start and took a six shot lead after the third round of the 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland went out in level par 35 and was briefly caught by America’s Rickie Fowler when he dropped a shot at the 12th. Fortunes changed when McIlroy carded two eagles and a birdie over the last six holes to post a four under par 68 and claim the biggest 54-hole lead since Tiger Woods led by the same margin at St Andrews in 2000.
McIlroy goes into the final round on 16 under par 200 and six shots ahead of Fowler who dropped three shots over the closing stretch before cementing a fighting 68 with a brave up-and-down from the sand on the par-5 18th hole.
Sergio Garcia posted a 69 to share third place with America’s Dustin Johnson on 9-under par 207 while France’s Victor Dubuisson returned the same score to move up to fifth place on 208 one shot ahead of Italy’s Edoardo Molinari.
McIlroy went into the penultimate round with a four shot lead after carding a pair of 66s over the first two days but immediately dropped a shot when his approach ran through the green on the opening hole. He got back to 12 under when he birdied the 528-yard par-5 5th but lost the lead when Fowler birdied four holes out of six around the turn.
At that stage the Irishman looked under serious pressure but he dug deep to post a birdie on the 14th and two eagles on the 16th and the 18th. He was helped by dropped shots from Fowler at the 14th, 16th and 17th before getting one back at the end of his round.
The Irishman will now be the firm favourite to claim the third leg of a personal Grand Slam having won his first Major title at the 2011 US Open and then followed that with a victory in the PGA Championship the following year.
He could also join an illustrious group compromising Ted Ray (1912), Bobby Jones (1927), Gene Sarazen (1932), Henry Cotton (1934), Tom Weiskopf (1973) and Woods (2005) who have led outright through all four rounds of the Championship.
“I feel like today my patience was rewarded,” said the leader just as the rain started to batter against the media centre roof. “I didn’t get off to the best of starts. I wasn’t able to take a few birdie chances around the turn and then dropped a shot at the 12th but the finish speaks for itself.
“I feel very comfortable. I was in here last night talking about being comfortable. This is the third night in a row I will sleep on the lead and I’m still comfortable.
“It helps that I’ve been in this position before and have been able to convert. But I’m not going to take anything for granted because I have won from seven back this year (at the BMW PGA Championship). I have been on the right side of it and the wrong side of it. A lot can happen. You can’t let yourself think about winning. You’ve got to stay in the present and that’s what I’m going to try to do for 18 holes tomorrow.
Asked what he thought of The R&A’s decision to utilise a two-tee start in an effort to minimise the effect of disruptive weather that was expected he said: “I think it’s the second best decision The R&A has made this year. The first was bringing The Open back to (Royal) Portrush. But I think it was a great decision. They got it right.”
Fowler confirmed that he was delighted to be in the final group for the second Major in succession but admitted that he had a mountain to climb in order to overhaul the rampant McIlroy.
“I’m definitely satisfied with my game,” he said. “I’m definitely delivering the club properly although three shots slipped away from me on the back nine.
“My swing is a lot more efficient than it’s ever been,” he added in reference to the work he has been doing with new coach Butch Harmon. “It’s more based on body rotation rather than timing and hands. It’s going to be tough catching Rory from six shots back. I need to get off to a good start to put a bit of pressure on him because he’s definitely in control of the golf tournament right now.”