Two eagles in the last three holes left Rory McIlroy with a six-shot lead going into the final day of The 143rd Open at Liverpool Hoylake. He looks very much the likely winner.
For the first time in the 143-year history of The Open, the qualifiers for the weekend were assigned in groups of three, and the tee-times were staggered on both the 1st and the 10th tees. This led to the anomalous situation of leader Rory MacIlroy, on twelve-under, teeing off at 11.01 on the first, at exactly the same time as Tiger Woods, back in last place on plus-two, was teeing off at the tenth. This is not an event that is ever likely to be repeated.
The reason was the weather, and the R&A's determination to ensure that Round Three was completed on Saturday. Thunderstorms were predicted during the day, and the organisers wanted to leave plenty of margin in case it was necessary to suspend play. In fact, although there was plenty of rain the thunder stayed away, with the result that play for the day was completed at 16.00 – another one-off. Normally play would continue until around 19.00 or later.
But even if the spectators were left feeling a little short-changed, the decision proved wise. Only minutes after the last group had holed out on 18, the heavens opened to a deluge of diluvian proportions that would have washed the players off down the Mersey...
The iron off the tee is the percentage shot at The Open this week. Tiger Woods proved the point on Friday. His decision to take a bold approach with the driver in order to try to make things happen almost cost him his place over the weekend. A triple-bogey 7 at 17 left him a shot adrift of the cut, but a knee-trembling 8-footer for birdie at the last dragged him just the right side of the boundary again. By Round Three he was plus-six for the holes where he had used his driver.
The logic seemed sensible enough: "There are par-4s out there, that if I drive well I'm playing my 60° wedge into the green," he said. But his exection was off. He hauled his tee shot so far left on 17 that he finished out of bounds, was forced to reload, and then almost did the same with his third.
No, irons are the safe option from the tee. But the one thing you must not do is put your iron into the rough. That will leave you a very long and difficult approach to the green. Birdies become a forlorn prospect, and the risk of a bogey looms large.
In the space of a few holes during Saturday's third round, three key players proved the point in spades. One was overnight leader Rory McIlroy, the others were his two closest challengers, Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia.
After making serene progress on the first two days to 12-under and a lead of four, McIlroy was stuttering. He opened with a bogey, and did not get the shot back until the par-5 fifth. After that, he struggled to put his approach shots onto the green or anywhere near the hole. Far too often he was leaving himself with 6, 7 or 8 footers for par.
Behind him, Sergio was his usual erratic self, but after an opening bogey to match McIlroy's, which took him back to five-under, he somehow contrived to pull birdies out at 2, 5, 8 and 9 to keep himself in contention.
It was Sergio's playing partner, Fowler, who was sparking. For 13 holes he could do almost no wrong. One bogey on 7 was comfortably seen off by six birdies, including three in a row on 10, 11, and 12, which coincidentally took him to ten, eleven, and twelve-under. McIlroy, meanwhile, had finally made a birdie on 11 to get to thirteen-under, one better than his starting score.
This is where the importance of iron-play really began to make itself felt, as the third round of The Open began to take some dramatic twists and turns. McIlroy, having finally secured that elusive birdie, pushed his iron off the tee at 12 into the thicker cut of rough, and for once he was unable to scramble an eight-footer to save his par. He gave the stroke straight back. Fowler had just birdied the same hole with another superb iron into the heart of the green, and McIlroy's lead of four at the start of the day had evaporated. Both players stood at twelve-under, with Sergio three shots back on nine-under.
There was no relief for McIlroy on the par-3 13th. Again he pushed his iron off the tee into the greenside rough. There was no chance of a birdie, and he was grateful for another scramble for par.
But unknown to Rory, the tide had turned. Minutes before, Fowler too had pushed his tee-shot right, and this was a sign of things to come for the American. Although he rescued his par on 13, he pushed his tee-shot right again into the heavy stuff on 14, and this time he was unable to send his approach far enough to reach the green and rescue par. Having hauled himself back to level-pegging, he found himself almost immediately a shot behind.
Could Sergio take advantage? An imperious approach on 14 left him with a putt of no more than a foot for a birdie that would have taken him to ten-under and two shots off the lead. Incredibly, he missed it. It was clear for the rest of the round that he could not shake off the thought of that lapse.
Suddenly neither Fowler nor Garcia could find fairway or green, while McIlroy was splitting both. He sank a 30-footer for birdie on 14, and all of a sudden the gap was back to two. Fowler found more long stuff on the par-5 16th, and what might have been a birdie was a bogey. Garcia made his birdie, but both were in the rough again on 17, and both bogeyed. Fowler, so long so fluid, had now dropped three shots in four holes.
McIlroy, meanwhile, was confirming that the stutter had gone for good. Two shots to the green on 16, one putt for an eagle, fifteen-under. Fowler and Garcia both on minus-nine, six strokes behind.
Fowler gamely birdied 18, but McIlroy wasn't finished yet. There was a glitch and a bogey on 17, but two majestic shots to 18 – his second never deviated from the pin from the moment it left the club face – and a ten-foot putt for another eagle. Two eagles in three holes. Sixteen-under for the tournament.
Incredible. In the space of half a round, McIlroy had gone from four-ahead to level-pegging, then back to six-ahead.
The only players in the field who could conceivably deny McIlroy the title are Fowler on ten-under, and Garcia and Dustin Johnson – McIlroy's playing partner in the Third Round – both on nine-under. After a birdie at the first and a two-shot swing to cut the lead to two strokes, Johnson bogeyed 7, 8 and 9 to fall out of the top half dozen. A steady back nine, with three birdies and no bogeys, brought him quietly back into contention.
But it is hard to see any of these three mounting a serious challenge. One might cast one's mind back to the blow-up in the final round of the 2011 Masters, when McIlroy started four ahead in the final round and finished ten shots behind winner Charles Schwartzel.
But these were different days. McIlroy was then the young challenger. Now he is the seasoned veteran, and Garcia and Fowler the uncrowned pretenders to the throne. Nothing is ever certain in golf, particularly on a links course in the final round of The Open. But I expect McIlroy to proceed comfortably and confidently to his third major and his first Open win, leaving only the Masters title to complete the full set.