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Rory McIlroy closing in on wire-to-wire win in British Open after 68

Rory McIlroy is in full control at the British Open after a third-round 68 gives him a six-shot lead
Rory McIlroy is attempting to win his third major at age 25, which would equal Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods

Making two eagles on the last three holes, Rory McIlroy shot another dazzling round at the British Open here Saturday and threatens to turn this into the second consecutive wire-to-wire affair in a major golf tournament.

German Martin Kaymer won that way in last month's U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.

McIlroy entered the day with a four-shot lead and increased that by two over the par-72 Royal Liverpool course, finishing at 16 under par.

He shot a four-under 68 to go with 66s in the first two rounds. He actually was caught by Rickie Fowler early on the back nine, when both were 12 under for two holes.

But then McIlroy birdied the par-four 14th while Fowler bogeyed and McIlroy eagled the par-five 16th after another Fowler bogey and finished with another eagle on the 18th.

On the back nine, McIlroy made two eagles, had six threes on the card and shot 33.

"I feel like, today, my patience was rewarded," the Northern Ireland star said. "I was just sort of waiting for those two holes," he added of par-fives No. 16 and 18, which he eagled.

As McIlroy spoke with reporters, a huge downpour blew in off the Irish Sea and hit this Western England seaside city, prompting laughter and relief.

The R&A — that's the Royal and Ancient golf club that runs this British Open — had taken a look at the weather report for Saturday and for the first time ever gone to tee times at both the first and 10th tees in an attempt to get play in before the storm hit. Their timing was perfect. Play ended about 20 minutes before the rain began.

"I think this was the second-best decision the R&A has made this year," McIlroy joked, referring to his favorite decision as their choice to take the British Open back to his home course at Royal Portrush in either five or seven years.

And the R&A didn't miss the opportunity to gloat about its weather strategy, releasing a statement that said: "Given the weather forecast and the huge deluge around 20 minutes after play concluded, we feel absolutely vindicated in making the decision we did."

Sunday, McIlroy will be seeking his third major by age 25, a feat also accomplished by Jack Nicklaus, who holds the record with 18 major titles, and Tiger Woods, who is second with 14 and still trying for another.

Woods made the cut on the number at two over Friday and then struggled again Saturday, despite near perfect weather and soft greens. He shot one-over 73 to go with his opening 69 and his blowup 77.

"Made a lot of mistakes," Woods said, in a somewhat terse post-round summary.

Phil Mickelson didn't do much better and had a similar assessment. He shot one-under 71 to go with his opening 74 and second-round 70, but is 15 shots behind McIlroy and said, "I threw countless shots away; not shots, opportunities. It's just frustrating."

McIlroy's six-shot lead after 54 holes is the largest at that stage since Woods led by six at St. Andrews in 2000. Woods ended up winning by eight.

McIlroy won both his previous majors — the 2011 U.S. Open and the 2012 PGA — by eight shots. The largest comeback in British Open history was in 1999, when Paul Lawrie made up 10 shots and won in a playoff. That was the year Frenchman Jean Van de Velde, with a three-shot lead, made several bad shot choices on the 18th hole at Carnoustie and fell back into the playoff.

This is McIlroy's 24th start in a major championship. One of his pursuers, besides Fowler, is Sergio Garcia, who ranks second in major starts without a victory. Garcia has started and failed to win 61 times, two fewer than Lee Westwood.

Saturday, Garcia shot 69 and is seven shots back of McIlroy. So is Dustin Johnson, who had a second-round-best 65 on Friday and started four back of the leader. Johnson shot 71 on Saturday.

McIlroy said he was aware that Fowler was taking a run at him, but added, "I knew Rickie was playing well in front of me, but I didn't know how well.... But I never panicked. I didn't feel uncomfortable. I knew I had some holes coming up that I could take advantage of."

Among those holes were the par-five 16th and 18th, which McIlroy eagled.

Fowler, like McIlroy just 25, had eight birdies in a round of 68.

The best rounds of the day were turned in by veteran Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland, the 2011 British champion who will turn 46 next month, and 20-year-old Jordan Spieth. Both shot 67.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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