Tuesday 24 October 2017

Eagle finish sends Rory McIlroy soaring towards Open glory

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland celebrates holing an eagle putt on the 16th green during the third round of The Open Championship at Royal Liverpool yesterday (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland celebrates holing an eagle putt on the 16th green during the third round of The Open Championship at Royal Liverpool yesterday (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

Dermot Gilleece

Every stroke carried a thrilling sense of purpose, as Rory McIlroy delivered a spectacular finish to a third-round 68 in the 143rd Open Championship at Hoylake yesterday. With his closest challenger, Rickie Fowler, six shots adrift, he is set fair today for a third triumph in three different Majors, just as Phil Mickelson achieved last year.

Often criticised for a seeming indifference to the vagaries of links play, a newly-determined McIlroy displayed quiet resolve in pursuit of this coveted crown. And his key moments were a 25-foot putt for an eagle at the long 16th, and another from little more than nine feet for the only eagle of the day at the 18th.

Remarkably benign conditions in the afternoon, albeit under an angry-looking sky, prompted the question as to whether the R&A had been excessively cautious in ordaining a two-tee start yesterday for the first time in the history of the Championship. They would hardly have done it had they been privy to the weather forecast on the BBC on Saturday night.

It predicted that a horrendous storm of nightmarish proportions would pass the Lancashire area to the east. Which is exactly what happened. You get very little time for manoeuvre, however, when changing plans for such a huge undertaking, and key decisions affecting spectators and players had to be in place some time before that forecast went out.

For the Americans it was a bit like home with wet-gear, giving the driver full rein off the tee and playing target golf to receptive greens. Even that, however, failed to lift Tiger Woods in a strangely subdued 73 which would have been unthinkable on this turf eight years ago.

The weather unquestionably worked to McIlroy’s favour, from the calm of Friday afternoon to the gentle westerlies of yesterday which rose to no more than 8mph. But champions know how to ride their luck and the majesty of his finale brought the sort of thunderous cheering from the horseshoe galleries around the 18th normally reserved for a Sunday afternoon.

No matter that he started the round with an untidy bogey on the first from wedge distance of the green; the finishing touches are what we remember. And it came as no surprise when he said afterwards: “I feel very comfortable leading the tournament. It helps that I’ve been in this position before and that I was able to get the job done. And I’m really comfortable with my golf game; really comfortable on the greens.”

He added: “I never panicked out there today. When I bogeyed the 13th to be tied with Rickie (Fowler), I knew I had some holes coming up that I could take advantage of. I remained very patient, waiting for the time I would hit some good shots and maybe convert them.”

Two rather special ones were a four-iron to the 16th and a five-iron to the last. 

Heavy overnight and morning rain had taken much of the sting out of firm fairways while perfectly groomed greens were running at a moderate speed of 10.7 on the Stimpmeter.

McIlroy’s response was that of a player who is now at a point in his career where competitive fear is something he generates among his rivals. Having responded emphatically to criticism of some poor Friday performances, he proceeded to maintain the sort of competitive steel for which his mentor, Jack Nicklaus, was renowned.

And there is no doubting the influence of Nicklaus on this performance, especially given the heart-to-heart they had after McIlroy had shot 63, 78 in the Bear’s Memorial Tournament earlier this season.

Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell ended the day tied on five-under, largely through concentrated bursts of birdies. In Clarke’s 67, there were four in five holes from the first to the fifth, after he had started on the 10th. And for a player notoriously frail with the blade, he had a fine return of 28 putts.

Clarke then revealed that it took eight months of practice to achieve the necessary adjustment in timing to match his new, slim-line frame.

“I gave myself a lot of chances out there and am generally pleased with my play,” said the 2011 champion.

McDowell was among those who questioned the two-tee decision, though he added: “In terms of fairness, it’s not going to matter much.” His 68 was largely the product of a remarkable back nine of 31 which contained birdies at the 10th, 11th, 14th, 15th and 18th.

In sharp contrast, the homeward journey became a painful trial for Shane Lowry, who had the makings of a seriously good score after reaching the turn in 31. But he proceeded to bogey the 11th and 12th and was especially annoyed to finish 5, 5, 5 — two squandered birdie chances on either side of a bogey on the 17th.

“Missing short putts on 10 and 11 was really frustrating,” he said afterwards. “I’d love to play that back nine again.” He added: “My objective now is to clear my head and get a high finish tomorrow for some valuable world ranking points.”

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