You might think that Rory McIlroy loves this, playing golf on the great links of the world, not unlike the places he played while learning the game in Northern Ireland where the ground rolls, the wind blows and the rough is an unforgiving as the tax man.
The truth is, to borrow a phrase that fits here on the outskirts of Liverpool, links golf isn’t McIlroy’s cup of tea. He prefers his golf through the air rather than along the ground and doing it in warm, sunny places where the wind blows just enough to keep the sweat down.
“It’s going to be my favorite style of golf two weeks a year,” McIlroy joked last week at the Scottish Open where the wind and chill were in fine form, unlike here.
Perhaps, he’s learning to love it.
The Rory we remember, the one who had blowtorch victories in the U.S. Open at Congressional and the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, is at it again at Royal Liverpool where he will carry a six-stroke lead over Rickie Fowler into the final round of the British Open.
“If somebody plays that well, he deserves it. There’s nothing you can do,” said Sergio Garcia, who is tied for third, seven behind.
Consider this: Garcia is playing his 62nd professional major championship and will probably lock down his 19th career top-10 finish in a major Sunday. He’s never won one, though.
McIlroy is 18 holes away from becoming the third-youngest player in history to win the first three legs of the career Grand Slam. A couple of guys named Nicklaus and Woods are the only ones to have done it quicker.
“I’m going to try to put all of that out of my mind,” McIlroy said.
If the conditions McIlroy has played in at Hoylake haven’t been wicked, his performance has.
McIlroy shot 66 in splendid weather Thursday, added a second 66 in the wind on Friday and putted like a savant on a soft and soggy Saturday that he punctuated with a pair of late eagles. He’s 16-under par through three rounds and has a chance to be the first player to ever finish 20-under par in a major championship.
This has been McIlroy the magnificent so far. He striped a 239-yard 5-iron second shot to within 10 feet of the par-5 finishing hole then poured in the putt for an eagle, stretching his lead from four to six strokes.
“I felt like those two shots into 18 deserved an eagle,” McIlroy said with a smile.
He talked last week about the inner peace he feels and, should he win, he promised to tell the media about the two words he keeps running through his mind as trigger mechanisms. Whatever he’s doing, it’s working.
McIlroy even managed to keep the rain away while he played his third round.
Until McIlroy teed off just after 11 a.m., it had been a morning for brollies and macs as the Brits call their umbrellas and rain suits. It rumbled thunder in the wee hours of Saturday morning, bringing an end to the heat alerts that had crawls on the television screen urging the locals to drink plenty of fluids and avoid prolonged exposure to the heat which crept into the low 80s – yes, 80s – on Friday.
It brought in proper Open Championship weather except for the wind which, like Tiger Woods’ mojo, went missing. Rain gushed down for a time before abating at mid-morning and rather than hearing the wind whistle off the Irish Sea, the sound of rain pants swishing with every step provided the Saturday soundtrack.
The threat of stormy weather was so worrisome that the R&A took the unprecedented step of using a two-tee start on Saturday, a change in protocol that dated back to 1860 when Old Tom Morris and Willie Park Sr. got this party started.
It’s apparently a new day for the R&A, which rules golf outside the United States. There’s a September vote to allow female members into the staid organization, a vote that desperately needs to pass to wrench the perception of the R&A into the 21st century. The expectation is the measure will pass and the ground will not shake.
The early weather threat didn’t bother the thousands of spectators who fanned out across the flat course, straining for a look at McIlroy or Mickelson or Woods.
The Open Championship looks and feels different than every other tournament in so many ways, not the least of which are the beer gardens located around the property where the loyal gather at picnic tables to sip a pint in souvenir glasses while watching the action on big screens.
Late Sunday afternoon, those glasses will likely be raised in a toast to McIlroy.