BRITISH OPEN: McIlroy takes control
HOYLAKE, England — Rory McIlroy only saw birdies at Royal Liverpool, mostly on his scorecard, and even one pheasant that trotted across the eighth green as he was lining up a putt. That was but a minor interruption in his commanding performance Friday in the British Open.
Once he made a birdie, and then another, nothing could stop McIlroy: not another second-round collapse; not anyone in the field, and certainly not Tiger Woods.
After a bogey on his opening hole stirred memories of another “Black Friday,” McIlroy looked more like the Boy Wonder who won two majors in a runaway. With three birdies in his last four holes, he posted a second straight 6-under 66 to build a four-shot lead over Dustin Johnson.
McIlroy spoke of an “inner peace,” and the two secret words that triggered his powerful swing and set up birdie chances on just about every hole.
“People call it the zone, people call it whatever,” he said. “It’s just a state of mind where you think clearly. Everything seems to be on the right track. I’ve always said, whenever you play this well, you always wonder how you’ve played so badly before. And whenever you’ve played so badly, you always wonder how you play so well. I’m happy where my game is at the minute. And hopefully, I can just keep up the solid play for another couple of days.”
“Two 66s from Rory is a bit special, but he is just that — he is a bit special,” Graeme McDowell said. “So he’s going to be tough to catch this weekend if he keeps that up.”
McIlroy was at 12-under 132 — the same 36-hole score of Woods in 2006.
Dustin Johnson birdied the last two holes for a 65, the low score of the week. That ordinarily would put him in the last group with McIlroy, except they will have company in a historic decision at golf’s oldest championship. Because of a nasty storm approaching England, the Open will go to threesomes teeing off on both sides Saturday.
Francesco Molinari (70) will join them. He was part of a large group at 6-under 138 that included Rickie Fowler (69), Sergio Garcia (70), Charl Schwartzel (67), Louis Oosthuizen (68) and Ryan Moore (68).
Johnson had a chance at the claret jug three years ago until a 2-iron that went out-of-bounds on the 14th hole at Royal St. George’s. He also lost a three-shot lead in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and missed out on a playoff at Whistling Straits for grounding his club in sand at the 2010 PGA Championship.
“I’m glad and I’m in the last group,” Johnson said. “Just go out there and try to shoot a big number.”
Four shots can be lost quickly in any major, especially in links golf, particularly in nasty weather. McIlroy followed up a record-tying 63 at St. Andrews in 2010 with an 80 the following day. Even so, the ease with which he moved around Royal Liverpool was more frightening than any forecast.
McIlroy picked up his first birdie with two putts from across the green on the par-5 fifth. But it was on the par-3 sixth, when McIlroy deposited an 8-iron to 7 feet for birdie, that he found that peace and put the pedal down on the rest of the field.
He ushered the pheasant off the eighth green, regrouped and holed a 7-foot birdie putt, chipped to tap-in range on the 10th and then kept giving himself chances on all but one hole until ending with three birdies. McIlroy was in such a groove that with the wind at his back, he hit driver 396 yards on the 17th hole and pitched to 8 feet.
It was only Friday — a fantastic one, not a freaky one — but the kid looked like he was going for a knockout.
“Once I got to 7 (under), I felt like, ‘OK, this time I feel good. I can get to 8. I can get to 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.’”
As for those two secret words that keep McIlroy locked into what he’s doing?
“I’ll tell you on Sunday, hopefully,” he said.