British Open: Rory McIlroy responds as the challengers charge

It took the loss of sole possession of a lead he had held since Thursday to sting Rory McIlroy into a withering response that, by the end of the third round, tightened his grip on the Open Championship at Hoylake.

McIlroy, after two imperious 66s at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, allowed his challengers to come at him on an intermittently rainy Saturday. First his playing partner, the United States’ Dustin Johnson, halved the Northern Irishman’s four-shot overnight lead. Johnson faltered, but then a more sustained dual press came from American Rickie Fowler and Spaniard Sergio Garcia, playing together a hole ahead of McIlroy.

In a burst of high-quality golf, Garcia’s pinpoint iron play landed him four birdies on the front nine, while Fowler, also out in three-under 32, birdied the par-five tenth and drained a ten-metre putt on the 11th to trim McIlroy’s lead to one shot.

Out in front of the field, McIlroy’s scoring had stalled, as if he was waiting for some excitement. He birdied the par-four 11th after a dazzling approach, but hacked from right rough to left rough on the 12th and missed a two-metre putt to save par. Simultaneously, a roar arose from the next green, where Fowler’s eight-iron approach to 1.5 metres delivered his seventh birdie of the day.

This was the climacteric of the third round, and perhaps of the tournament. McIlroy had sailed serenely in front since stepping onto the course on Thursday morning. The elements had conspired in his favour, as he had been one of the golfers able to play in calm weather before a gusting wind came up on Thursday and then again after it receded on Friday. Even on Saturday, circumstances were marshalled in his favour. To dodge a forecast wild storm, the Royal and Ancient had taken the unprecedented decision of clustering the entire field for a morning start, sending the players out in groups of three off two separate tees. Not only did this allow the field to avoid the bad weather, but Saturday morning was almost windless, and the passing showers softened the greens to provide the best scoring conditions of the week. This put the championship on a platter for McIlroy, but he had not been able to accept it. Now Fowler, with Garcia lurking, had materialised like thieves. Tied with Fowler, McIlroy hit a poor tee shot to the par-three 13th, named ‘Alps’, his ball rolling back into a deep greenside valley. Suddenly he was faced with losing the lead altogether.

But parity only lasted for five minutes. Fowler sliced his iron off the 14th tee, had to lay up short of the green for two, and his four-metre putt for par lipped out. Back on 13, McIlroy executed a firm chip and rolled in his two-metre par saver. He had his lead back. Later, he said he was ‘conscious that Rickie was getting a little closer or Sergio or whoever it was’, but ‘never panicked’.

Having been threatened, McIlroy now showed no mercy. He sank a 10-metre birdie putt on the 14th, almost picked up another stroke at the 15th, and came home in a rush to eagle the par-five 16th and 18th holes. His one mistake in the last hour, a pulled approach that resulted in a bogey on the 17th, did not cost him, as Fowler and Garcia both made the same error with the same result.

And so, by the end of the day that momentarily upset McIlroy’s procession and took away a lead that he might have regarded as his by right, he was ahead by an enhanced six strokes. Behind him was what looked like a lively scrimmage for second place, among it the leading Australian contender, world number one Adam Scott. After treading water for two days, Scott made a seven on the par-five tenth after his second shot plugged in a greenside bunker. Then his putter finally clicked and he recorded five birdies in the last eight holes, but still he trailed McIlroy by 10. Marc Leishman (five under) was a further shot back, with Matt Jones (one over), John Senden, Jason Day and Rhein Gibson (all four over) near the back of the field.

McIlroy, meanwhile, stood on the brink of winning his third major tournament before his 26th birthday. Only five players – Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Tiger Woods – have won all four, and only the Masters would now be lacking from McIlroy’s collection. Asked what winning the Open would mean to him, McIlroy said, ‘It means a lot of hype coming to Augusta’. But he still had to play one good round here, and mention of Augusta carried a silent warning. Leading there by four shots on the corresponding Saturday night in 2011, McIlroy carded a Sunday 80, the worst-ever score by a third-round Masters leader. ‘I’ve been on the right side of it and I’ve been on the wrong side of it,’ McIlroy said of large final-round turnarounds, ‘so you can’t let yourself think about winning.’

This story British Open: Rory McIlroy responds as the challengers charge first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.