HOYLAKE, England — With the nasty weather holding off and Royal Liverpool essentially defenseless, everyone took aim at Rory McIlroy.
Rickie Fowler led the way.
The 25-year-old American piled up seven birdies through the first 12 holes July 19 and pulled even with McIlroy, who failed to take full advantage of the favorable scoring conditions in the third round of the British Open.
The R&A went with an unprecedented two-tee start, hoping to get the round completed while under the threat of severe thunderstorms.
When McIlroy teed off with a four-stroke lead shortly before lunchtime, there was only a light sprinkle and hardly any wind. Not surprisingly, the world’s best players attacked the softened greens with fearless abandon.
“I think everyone was getting ready for a hurricane,” said Keegan Bradley, who shot a 3-under 69. “But it’s as nice as we could imagine”
Darren Clarke’s 67 included an amazing stretch of six birdies in seven holes and was better than any of his rounds when he won the Open at Royal St. George’s in 2011. Graeme McDowell posted a 68. The Northern Irishmen were the leaders in the clubhouse at 5-under 211.
Their countryman McIlroy built his commanding lead with two straight 6-under 66s. But he got off to a shaky start, squandered a booming drive in the middle of the fairway, his next shot catching a deep pot bunker next to the green. He barely got it out of the sand and took bogey.
Dustin Johnson, playing in the final group with the leader and his closest challenger at the start of play, stuck an approach to about 5 feet and rolled in the birdie. Just like that, McIlroy’s lead was cut in half.
But it wasn’t Johnson who emerged as McIlroy’s prime challenger.
Fowler kept up his strong play in the majors, which began with a fifth-place showing at the Masters and continued with a runner-up showing behind runaway winner Martin Kaymer in the U.S. Open last month.
Now, it looks as if Fowler will have his best chance yet going to the final round on July 20.
When he rolled in his third straight birdie at No. 12, and McIlroy came along in the final group and made bogey, the two young players — born less than five months apart — were tied for the lead at 12 under.
Of course, McIlroy already has a couple of major titles, romping to victory at both the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, each time by eight shots. Fowler has yet to win one of golf’s signature events, but he’s set up his schedule this year with an idea of peaking at the biggest tournaments.
Clearly, it’s paying off.
Johnson, another talented player without a major championship, dropped back with three straight bogeys on the front side. Perennial contender Sergio Garcia, still seeking his first major as well, was 3 under on the day but squandered several prime chances to take his score even lower — most notably, missing a 3-foot birdie try at No. 12. The Spaniard was three shots off the lead.
Also in the mix were major winners Jim Furyk and Charl Schwartzel, both at 7 under along with Johnson and France’s Victor Dubuisson.
The 44-year-old Furyk was surely heartened by the last three Opens being won by 40-something players.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson was hoping to make a big push after shooting 70 on July 18. But Lefty made three bogeys on the front side and, even with a rally after the turn, still managed just a 71 that left him a daunting 11 shots off the lead as he signed his card.
He knew he should have done better. “It’s as easy as I have seen the course play,” he said.
Coming off one of the worst Open rounds of his pro career, Tiger Woods teed off in the final group at No. 10, still clinging to the hope of mounting a Paul Lawrie-like comeback.
No chance. After birdies at his first two holes, Woods made another major blunder with a double bogey at the second — his 11th hole of the day — and remained 13 shots off the lead.
(PAUL NEWBERRY, AP National Writer)