HOYLAKE, England – There was one guy running away mid-afternoon Saturday at Royal Liverpool in the 143rd Open Championship, and a slew of others who had no earthly idea how to catch him.
Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia all took turns making a run at the top, but each had trouble sustaining any momentum once he’d built it.
Fowler (68) went out in 3-under 32, but needed to birdie the last just to shoot under par on the back nine; Johnson (71) birdied the opening hole from 3 feet, and coupled with a bogey by McIlroy, who was playing alongside, he was only two shots back. Despite his length, though, he wouldn’t make another birdie until the 13th hole, and that was after a patch of three consecutive bogeys to end his opening nine, sending him careening down the board.
As others slayed the par 5s, Johnson played them in 1 under. He’s with Garcia at 9-under 207, a shot behind Fowler and seven behind the leader.
“I struggled a little bit in the middle of the round, mostly with the putter,” said Johnson, who turned in a tournament-low 65 Friday. “I just didn’t hit it as good as I did yesterday.”
And then there is Sergio. At times this week, he has appeared to be in fine form, hitting laser-like iron shots with great precision. Clearly, there is no major where the tumultuous Spaniard is so loved and embraced as this one. Spirited cheers of “We love you Sergio!” rang out loudly and frequently, and a chorus of “Ole, Ole, Ole” reverberated from young fans behind the steel fences as he made his walk up to the green at the par-5 18th. But there, much like the previous hole, an errant shot to the green would cost him.
At the par-4 17th, it was a pulled 5-iron after a perfect tee shot to leave a difficult chip that he did not get to the proper tier, leading to bogey; at 18, he flailed a 3-wood right, short-siding himself in tall, gnarly rough, and it was a masterful accomplishment just to chop his third shot to 20 feet. He settled for par. Just moments after he exited the green, Garcia would hear the stands shake as McIlroy ripped a 5-iron to 8 feet, setting up his second eagle in three holes.
Clearly, Sunday at the 143rd Open could be McIlroy’s 18-hole victory lap.
“The only thing I would have loved to hit is a couple of better shots coming in on 17 and 18,” Garcia said. “That was what disappointed me a little bit more than Rory making eagles and birdies.”
Garcia, 34, appeared resigned to the thought that this tournament, again, is one man’s show, and the rest are left to wrestle and scrap for second. Eight years ago, when he was 28, Garcia showed up to Hoylake on Sunday clad head-to-toe in bright yellow, but watched another man play the role of chief banana. Garcia struggled to 73 and tied for fifth, and could only view in envy as Tiger Woods ran off with yet another major victory. Now he’s left to witness another dominant performance, this time by a player who is nearly a decade younger than he.
“No,” Garcia answered honestly, shrugging his shoulders. “You can’t control that. And if you’re disappointed somebody is making birdies and eagles, then you’re not a good sportsman.”
In truth, Garcia, so often the man in the middle of the storm, has carried himself with a different aura this week. In majors of his past, at venues from Carnoustie to Augusta to Bethpage Black, he has let it be known the golf gods have “conspired” against him. He has proclaimed in frustrated tones that he does not have what it takes to win a major. This week, he’s been at peace. Saturday, when he missed a birdie putt inside 2 feet at the 12th that would have pulled him within three shots, he got on with his day. And coming in, he managed to stay aggressive with the putter, even if the chances wouldn’t fall.
“He hit some good shots, but just didn’t make anything,” said his caddie, Neil Wallace, who worked for Ernie Els and won a Masters with Trevor Immelman. Strangely, Garcia has an eagle and eight birdies on the more difficult front nine this week, but only five birdies on the back, which has three par-5 holes.
“Mentally, he’s been really good this week,” Wallace said. “He’s driven it well and his course management has been really good.
“He’s playing good; he just isn’t playing great.”
At this tournament, only one man is, and that guy is going to be difficult for the others to run down, especially with a rain-soaked Hoylake expected to play softer Sunday than it has all week. The Open is Garcia’s favorite event outside of the Ryder Cup, and he has performed well, but it likely won’t be enough. Most years, 9 under through 54 holes on a challenging links would be in the thick of the mix; this week, McIlroy simply is thumbing his nose at such a score, and at all his fellow competitors. He’s playing at a higher level, and by Sunday night, could find himself three-quarters of the way to a career Grand Slam. That’s heady stuff at age 25.
“Obviously, if Rory wasn’t at 16 under, it would be really, really tight,” said Garcia, one of 10 pursuers residing from 6 to 10 under. “I feel quite good with the way I’ve been playing … hopefully I’ll be able to do it again for another day and see where I finish.”
And if McIlroy runs away, as expected, then Garcia – in position to record his 19th top 10 in 64 major starts without ever landing a victory – can accept that. He’ll fight another day.
“The only thing I can do,” Garcia said, “is keep putting myself in these situations, and hope one day that it will be my turn.”