By PAUL NEWBERRY/AP National Writer
HOYLAKE, England (AP) – For the first time all week, Rory McIlroy looked a bit vulnerable at Royal Liverpool.
A shot up against a grandstand. Another into a bunker.
Two straight bogeys took a slice out of McIlroy’s commanding lead in the British Open, but he still led Sergio Garcia by three strokes in the final round Sunday.
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 that took his score to 17 under.
But the leader bogeyed the par-5 fifth after hitting his second shot up against the stands 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, still seeking an elusive major title at age 34, 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 to push his score to 17 under.
Garcia looked like the primary challenger to McIlroy. Rickie Fowler, playing in the final group of a major for the second straight time, managed only one birdie on the front and was still five shots off the pace at 12 under – just one shot closer than he was at the start of the round.
Marc Leishman was at 11 under while Shane Lowry matched the best round of the week with a 7-under 65 to reach the clubhouse with a 10-under 278. Jim Furyk, Edoardo Molinari, Dustin Johnson and Victor Dubuisson also were at 10 under.
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 wisely started early off two tees because of the forecast, but there were plenty of low scores to be had on the final day, even with a freshening breeze off the Irish Sea.
Tiger Woods wasn’t one of them. 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.”
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