Peter Morrison / AP
Sunday, July 20, 2014 | 10:26 a.m.
HOYLAKE, England — Rory McIlroy closed in on his third major championship at the British Open, holding a three-shot lead over Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler with two holes to play Sunday.
McIlroy failed to blow away the field as he did at the 2011 U.S. Open and 2012 PGA Championship, but he was still in control after a two-putt birdie at the par-5 16th hole pushed his score to 17 under.
Garcia made a crucial mistake at the par-3 15th, where he failed to get out of a bunker on his first attempt. With McIlroy looking on from the tee box, Garcia got out on his second try but took bogey, which positioned for another major heartbreak. The Spaniard has been a runner-up three times in golf's biggest events and contended plenty of other times, but he's still seeking his first championship.
McIlroy teed off with a six-stroke cushion, and the margin grew to seven when a booming drive off the first tee set up a 15-foot birdie.
But the leader bogeyed the par-5 fifth after hitting his second shot up against the grandstands right of the fairway. He had to take relief, punched his next shot over the green, chipped up 12 feet short of the flag and missed. It was a sloppy 6 at a hole where most of the leading contenders at least made birdie — and a couple walked off with eagles.
At the par-3 sixth, McIlroy missed the green and couldn't get up and down from the sand. It was the first time all week he had bogeyed two straight holes.
McIlroy limited the damage with another birdie at the ninth, making the turn with an even-par 35 and at 16 under overall. But as he headed to the 10th, Garcia got the crowd buzzing up ahead when he rolled in a 12-footer for eagle.
The Spaniard shot 32 on the front side and dropped his score to 14 under with the eagle.
Back came McIlroy, making a comfortable birdie at that same hole.
Fowler, playing in the final group of a major for the second straight time, didn't have a bogey on his card but failed to put up the really low score he needed to challenge McIlroy.
There were certainly low scores to be had at Royal Liverpool. Jim Furyk and Marc Leishman both shot 7-under 65, with Furyk finishing at 13-under 275 and the Aussie another shot back. Adam Scott was also at 276 after a 66.
McIlroy went into the round with a keen sense of history, knowing a victory at Royal Liverpool would give him the third leg in a career Grand Slam. He already won the U.S. Open in 2011 and the PGA Championship in 2012.
"I've got a lot to play for," he said beforehand. "This is a huge day for me.
Barring an unprecedented collapse — no player has squandered a six-shot lead on the final day of an Open — McIlroy would head to Augusta National next spring looking to join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen as the only players to win all four of golf's biggest events.
Only Woods and Nicklaus won three of the majors at 25 or younger.
A victory by McIlroy would also mean a big payday for his dad. British media reported that Gerry McIlroy and three of his friends placed a combined bet of 400 pounds (now $680) in 2004 on McIlroy winning the British Open before he turned 26.
The odds were 500-1, so they would win 200,000 pounds ($340,000) if McIlroy lifted the claret jug.
Storms rumbled through Hoylake after the third round, which the R&A started early off two tees because of the forecast, but the finale provided another prime day for scoring.
Tiger Woods failed to take advantage. Playing only his second tournament since back surgery, he had hoped to give Ryder Cup captain Watson a strong reason to be included on the American team this year.
Woods didn't even beat the 64-year-old captain, finishing five shots behind Watson.
"I just made too many mistakes," Woods said, "way too many mistakes."
He made another double bogey — his third of the week, to go along with two triple bogeys — and struggled to the finish with a 75. That left him at 6-over 294 for the week and a staggering 22 shots behind McIlroy before the leader even teed off.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson shot his best round of the week, a 68. He finished at 283, remaining winless since his victory at Muirfield a year ago.
Watson, playing what is likely his next-to-last British Open, showed he's still got plenty of game by shooting a 68 for a 289 total. He just missed an eagle try at the 18th that would've left him even for the tournament.
When told Woods' score, Watson said, "That's not very good."