The predicted thunderstorms failed to materialise, but Rory McIlroy provided plenty of fireworks to take a stranglehold on the 143rd Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
A “significant risk” of storms and an amber weather warning led the R&A to employ a two-tee start for the first time in championship history on Saturday, with play getting under way at 9am from the first and 10th tee.
But with perfect timing a spell of heavy rain ended in time for the leaders to tee off and returned as McIlroy gave his post-round press conference after repelling a spirited challenge from fellow 25-year-old Rickie Fowler with two eagles in the last three holes.
A round of 68 gave McIlroy a 16-under-par total of 200 – just two shots outside the all-time Open record set by Tom Lehman in 1996 – and a six-shot lead over Fowler, who also returned a 68. Spain’s Sergio Garcia and American Dustin Johnson were a shot further back on nine under.
McIlroy will now attempt to become the second wire-to-wire winner of a major in succession after Martin Kaymer won the US Open at Pinehurst last month by eight shots, the same margin by which McIlroy won the 2011 US Open and 2012 US PGA Championship.
And if the Northern Irishman succeeds in lifting the Claret Jug, the winner of the Open will have completed three legs of the career grand slam for the second year running.
Phil Mickelson’s victory at Muirfield means he needs to win the US Open to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only men to have won all four majors.
For McIlroy, the Masters would be the only trophy missing from his collection, a tournament he led by four going into the final round in 2011 only to collapse to a closing 80.
“It would mean a lot of hype going into Augusta next year,” McIlroy correctly predicted when asked about the impact of winning on Sunday. “Not a lot of people have achieved the career grand slam and if everything goes the right way tomorrow, to get three-quarters of the way there is some achievement by the age of 25.
“I’d be in pretty illustrious company so it would mean an awful lot. I never thought that I’d be able to be in this position. I didn’t think that I’d even have the chance at 25 to go for three legs of the grand slam so I’m going to try to put all of that out of my head.
“It would be way too much to think about and way too much to ponder. First things first. Just play a good solid round of golf tomorrow and if that means that I’m going to Augusta next year with a bit of hype, then so be it.”
McIlroy led the 2010 Open at St Andrews after an opening 63 only to shoot 80 in the second round in atrocious conditions. Four years on he benefited from being on the right side of the draw with an early start on Thursday and late start on Friday, a day which had caused him so many problems this season.
In 2014 he had been 50 under par in the first round and nine over in the second until Friday’s 66 saw him match Woods’ halfway total of 132 from 2006.
The 72 players who made the halfway cut - including Woods right on the mark of two over par - had been sent out in groups of three rather than two, with defending champion Mickelson alongside past and present US PGA champions Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley in the first match out.
McIlroy, looking to become just the third man in the modern era after Woods and Nicklaus to win three majors by the age of 25, began his third round just after 11am and immediately saw his four-shot advantage cut in half.
The former world number one found a greenside bunker with his approach to the first and a poor escape led to just his second bogey of the week, while playing partner Dustin Johnson holed from three feet for birdie.
As Johnson’s challenge faded with a hat-trick of bogeys, Fowler took up the charge with four birdies in his first six holes and three more in succession from the 10th - coupled with a McIlroy bogey on the 12th - meant the Florida neighbours were tied on 12 under par.
Four holes later Fowler was five behind after carding three bogeys in four holes as McIlroy birdied the 14th and hit a 252-yard four-iron onto the 16th green to set up an eagle from 18 feet.
McIlroy also bogeyed the 17th from a similar place as Fowler - who is the only player to finish in the top five in both majors this season - and although Fowler made birdie on the last, McIlroy stamped his authority on the tournament with another eagle from 10 feet.
“Obviously the finish speaks for itself,” he said. Loud and clear.