Rory McIlroy was not at his best for the entirety of Round 3 at the 2014 British Open, but he closed out strong to put himself in great shape to take home his third career major.
While the Northern Irish star entered the day with a four-stroke lead over Dustin Johnson, strong showings by Rickie Fowler and Sergio Garcia removed the gap on top of the leaderboard. This simply forced McIlroy to dig deeper, and he did, with a score of 68 to once again pull away.
He will now go into the fourth round with a six-stroke lead over the rest of the field.
This tournament is far from over, though, with Fowler and Garcia looking to charge on Sunday, as well as Victor Dubuisson, Dustin Johnson and others who remain in contention through 54 holes. No matter what happens, it is certain to be an exciting final day at Royal Liverpool.
McIlroy cleared a big mental hurdle with a solid performance in Round 2, something that had been difficult for him this season. He posted a 66 in each of the first two rounds to get to 12-under for the tournament, but Kelly Tilghman of Golf Channel noted that trouble was still coming:
As Stephanie Wei of Sports Illustrated pointed out, there were problems right from the beginning, as the superstar lost a significant part of his lead on the first hole:
This was just the second bogey of the tournament for McIlroy, although they both came on No. 1. This remains something to keep an eye on for Sunday.
For a good portion of the day, he was simply not quite as sharp as he had been, according to Joe Molloy of Golf Weekly:
Fortunately for McIlroy, it did not show up much on the scorecard, as he was able to save pars and keep his score low.
Meanwhile, Fowler came out firing, with four birdies in his first six holes. He came into the day with a lot more confidence, telling reporters, "I feel like this week is definitely the most comfortable I’ve been with the expectations of knowing I want to be in contention and wanting to be here to have a chance to win the golf tournament," via Karen Crouse of The New York Times.
His confidence was apparent throughout the day, as he kept making perfect shots to get into contention, as noted by PGA Tour:
Cam Cole of The Vancouver Sun then recapped the moment when Fowler was finally able to catch the leader:
The tie did not last long, though, with Fowler bogeying No. 14, quickly followed by McIlroy carding a birdie at the same hole. This small lead grew even bigger on the 16th hole, when McIlroy had arguably his best showing of the weekend, via Jay Busbee of Yahoo Sports:
If that was not good enough, he was able to finish the round with another eagle on No. 18 to finish with a six-stroke lead. He will now try to keep this lead, something he has done quite well in the past:
Justin Ray of Golf Channel also notes that McIlroy has the opportunity to continue his trend of blowing out the field in his victories:
Of course, this tournament is still not over, with a few others coming off of strong performances Saturday. Garcia bogeyed the first hole, but that was his only mistake for a long time, as he followed it up with four birdies on the front nine.
After a number of pars, he birdied No. 16 to move into a tie for second place, showing plenty of excitement in the process, according to Golf World:
Garcia has had plenty of disappointing performances in majors in his career, but he is attempting to prove doubters like Kyle Porter and Will Brinson of CBS Sports wrong:
He ended up with a 69 to put him at nine-under for the tournament, which at least puts him in striking distance of the leader.
Dubuisson used his great accuracy to remain in contention as well with a solid 68 that featured six birdies. Johnson had more of an up-and-down day, going two-over in the front nine before recovering with a three-under on the back.
Still, the final group Sunday will be Fowler and McIlroy, two young stars who will certainly draw a crowd. Porter was definitely excited about the scenario:
And Brinson points out that Fowler could succeed without the pressure on him:
It will be an uphill battle to overtake the current leader, but we have seen the American get hot in the past and post low scores. If he can perform to his ability, he has a chance of stopping McIlroy from winning this tournament.
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.