HOYLAKE, England — British Open Championship leader Rory McIlroy left the door invitingly ajar for a charging pack led by Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia before he slammed it shut with a dazzling finish to his third round at soggy Hoylake on Saturday.
The Northern Irishman began the day four shots clear of Dustin Johnson, was caught by inspired American Fowler after 12 holes, but two eagles in his last three holes meant he walked off the 18th green with a six-stroke lead for Sunday’s finale.
It has been 50 years since a player went into the fourth round of the Open with a bigger lead, on that occasion Tony Lema taking a seven-stroke advantage into Sunday at St. Andrews in 1964.
Yet for much of the third round on a Royal Liverpool course softened up by heavy rain, McIlroy seemed in real danger of missing his share of the birdie feast, which allowed 16 players to post sub-70 rounds.
After 13 holes, he was level par for the day and had Fowler breathing down his neck.
However, the 25-year-old responded with an incredible 3-3-3-3-5-3 finish to move to 16-under, and only an extraordinary turnaround Sunday can prevent him completing a first Open triumph to add to the U.S. Open and U.S PGA titles he won in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
As with McIlroy, Fowler also carded a four-under 68, but two bogeys and a double bogey over the closing five holes left him ruining what might have been his first major title.
Spaniard Garcia, who recovered from a poor start in which he found two greenside bunkers at the first, is seven shots adrift in a tie for third place with Johnson after a round of 69.
Frenchman Victor Dubuisson is on eight under.
Darren Clarke, the 2011 champion, fired the day’s joint best round of 67 but three-times winner Tiger Woods, who started on the 10th along with half the field, was down in a distant 58th place at three over par after a disappointing 73.
McIlroy looked edgy early on as he bogeyed the first hole and needed to sink a longish par putt on the second.
A birdie at the par-5 fifth got him back to level par for the day but he was in trouble after driving into deep sodden rough at the long par-4 seventh.
After chopping out sideways to the fairway he pitched into the green and rattled in a brave par putt to put distance between himself and Johnson, who bogeyed.
With Fowler snapping at his heels he was unable to make another birdie until the 11th, only to hand back a shot at the next hole.
The 14th proved crucial.
Shortly after Fowler, playing in the group ahead, got into trouble at the 454-yard par-4 and dropped a shot, McIlroy sunk a long birdie putt and the shackles came off.
Sensing the moment to strike a hammer blow on his rivals, he attacked the remaining par-5s with relish, eagling the 16th and 18th to huge roars from the galleries.
Fowler, who finished in the top five in the year’s first two majors, began with two birdies and picked up further shots on the fifth, sixth and 10th before rolling in a monster putt at the 11th to reach 11 under par.
He had begun his round six shots behind McIlroy but another birdie at the 12th gave him a share of the lead when McIlroy dropped a shot at the same hole.
Johnson began the day as McIlroy’s closest challenger and birdied the first after a stunning wedge approach to halve the deficit, but his challenge faded as he leaked shots in the rain, eventually recovering his form to sign for a 71.
The ever-popular Garcia, who has seven top-10 finishes at the Open but has never won a major, birdied the second, fifth, eighth and ninth to reach the turn in 32.
A rather disappointing back nine left him needing a huge swing on Sunday if he is to finally end his long wait for major silverware.