McIlroy the merciless goes six clear at Hoylake

He's had the luck of the draw, the odd lucky bounce and the kind of soft conditions he relishes. Be that as it may, Rory McIlroy produced one of the most professional and mature performances of his career to stand on the cusp of history at Royal Liverpool today.

Just when it looked as though he would be heading into Sunday with the thinnest of leads — or perhaps no lead at all as Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia made back nine moves — he kept his cool and put one hand on the old Claret Jug thanks to two stunning eagles in his last three holes. In short, he was merciless when it really counted. An assassin in the mode of the Tiger Woods of old, not the man who's 19 shots off the lead after a third round 73.

As Garcia and Fowler faded coming down the stretch of a track that was once a racecourse, McIlroy played the thoroughbred's role to take a six-shot lead into the final round of The Open and caress the third leg of the career grand slam.

"The only thing I would have loved to is hit a couple of better shots coming in on 17 and 18," said Garcia, who . That was what disappointed me a little bit more than seeing Rory making eagles and birdies. You can't control that. And if you're disappointed at somebody making birdies and eagles, then you're not a good sportsman.

On a day when he saw his four-stroke overnight advantage completely erased by the 12th by Fowler, the 25-year old Co Down man streaked away from the American thanks, not just to his stunning finish, but to a golden thread of putting brilliance that ran through his entire round.

With Fowler dropping three shots in four holes before picking up a shot at the last for a 68, McIlroy hit a 248-yard four iron to 21 feet at the 16th and then followed a bogey at the 17th with a 237-yard, five iron missile to 11 feet at the last. That he made both putts for eagle was no surprise given the way he had holed momentum saving putts at the second, seventh and ninth to keep his title challenge on course.

It all added up to 68 for McIlroy, who leads on 16 under par with the third leg of the career Grand Slam beckoning today.

Proud of what was a throughly professional and cool-headed performance, he said: “I feel like today my patience was rewarded.

“I didn't get off to the best of starts again, and had a few chances around the turn to maybe make birdies, and I wasn't able to do that and then dropped a shot. 

“But then I made a big par save on 13. And then to make that birdie putt on 14 was a bonus. And then obviously the finish speaks for itself. 

“To be able to make two threes there coming in was very important, and obviously sets me up nicely for tomorrow. I was in here last night talking about I'm comfortable in this position.

“This is the third night in a row that I'll sleep on the lead. So it helps that I've been in this position before and I've been able to convert and I've been able to get the job done. 

“I'm just really comfortable with my golf game. Comfortable with how I'm hitting it. Really comfortable on the greens."

Par saves at the second, seventh, ninth and 13th were as crucial as the three putts he holed for birdie and those two late eagle putts.

He said: “The putter definitely saved me. It was a very good putting round. I made momentum putts. Putts that you really need to make just to keep the round going. 

“I feel like that's been a big help this week. And I just need to go out there tomorrow and play one more solid round and hopefully that's enough.”

Four shots clear of Dustin Johnson starting the day, it looked as though it might be a long day for McIlroy when he tugged a pitching wedge into the left trap at the first and bogeyed.

With Johnson tapping in for birdie, his lead was halved but he soon settled and two-putted the par-five fifth for birdie from 40 feet to go three ahead.

Johnson failed to match his birdie there and while the cowboy swagger remained, his spirit was broken by bogeys at the seventh, eighth and ninth and he shot 71 to end the day nine behind McIlroy.

It fell to Fowler to take up where Johnson left off and he cut the gap with a birdie at the sixth before falling three behind again with a bogey at the seventh.

But with McIlroy making five pars in a row from the sixth, it was the California kid who piled on the pressure with birdies at the 10th, 11th and 12th leaving him just one back.

McIlroy was aware his lead was dwindling but did not press any panic buttons.

When he hit a two iron into the left rough at the 12th and dropped a shot after being forced to hack out, he was tied for the lead and under pressure.

It was a question of who would blink first and it was Fowler and  Garcia who wobbled down the stretch.

The American bogeyed the 14th and then dropped back to back shots at the 16th and 17th as McIlroy grew in confidence.

"I knew that Rickie was playing well in front," McIlroy said. "I didn't know how well. I saw on 12, I think, that he got to within one of me, and then I bogeyed the hole and then it was tied. But I never panicked. I didn't feel uncomfortable."

Even when Fowler birdied the last for a 68 to get to 10 under, McIlroy was in a different league.

At the 14th he hit a three iron off the tee and knocked in a 33 footer for a bonus birdie to two clear before putting in that amazing finish.

Explaining his mindset, McIlroy said: “I knew that Rickie was playing well in front. I didn't know how well. I saw on 12, I think, that he got to within one of me, and then I bogeyed that hole and then it was tied. 

It would mean a lot of hype going into Augusta next year.
— Rory McIlroy on what a win at Hoylake would mean

"I knew that I had some holes coming up that I could take advantage of and make some birdies on the way in. It was nice to be able to come up with the goods when I needed them the last few holes, and restore those few-shot lead.”

Fowler is not throwing in the towel just yet, having also contended in the final round of the US Open, won comfortably in the end by Martin Kaymer.

"Tomorrow 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."

Planning to watch a movie last night, as he’s done every night this week, McIlroy was asked about what winning the third leg of the Grand Slam would mean and joked: “It would mean a lot of hype going into Augusta next year.”

It would also mean an extra £200,000 for his father Gerry and three pals who bet £400 (£100 each) on him winning The Open by 2014 at 500-1 when the Holywood star was just 15.

Daring to dream of joining Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only players to win three major or more before the age of 25 in the last 80 years, he said: “Not a lot of people have achieved the career Grand Slam. 

"And if everything goes the right way tomorrow 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 yes, 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. 

“First things first. Just play a good solid round of golf tomorrow. And if that means that I'm going to Augusta next year with a bit of hype, then so be it.”

According to Ladbrokes, another punter stands to win a staggering £80,000 having put £200 on a teenage McIlroy to win The Open before 2015 at odds of 250/1.

He also placed a second bet on the Northern Irishman to do so before he turned 50 at 150/1 - leaving him to collect just over £80,000 profit should McIlroy land the Claret Jug today.

The bookies are already sweating about the near £2 million total payout.

Jessica Bridge of Ladbrokes said: "Patience is a virtue, and that's clearly something this punter has in abundance after waiting nearly 10 years to collect his £80k winnings. 

“It'll be the final nail in our coffin over Rory's payout, but we can only doff our cap to his foresight."