Tiger Woods of the US walks off the 18th hole after finishing his round on the second day of the British Open Golf championship at the Royal Liverpool golf club, Hoylake, England, Friday July 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Jon Super
July 19, 2014

HOYLAKE, England (AP) With the nasty weather holding off and Royal Liverpool essentially defenseless, Rory McIlroy fended off one challenger after another at the British Open.

Then, in a lightning-quick stretch of holes, he suddenly restored his commanding lead Saturday - and then some.

After Rickie Fowler pulled even with McIlroy, thanks to a two-stroke swing at the 12th hole, the Northern Irishman rolled in a 35-foot birdie at the 14th and an eagle at the 16th.

Fowler bogeyed the same two holes.

Just like that, McIlroy had a five-shot lead, one better than his advantage coming into the third round.

It looked like another McIlroy runaway at a major championship.

The R&A went with an unprecedented two-tee start, hoping to get the round completed while under the threat of severe thunderstorms. The bad weather never materialized. There were a few brief showers, but the course along the Irish Sea was no match for the world's best players - the greens softened by the smattering of rain, nary a stiff breeze to put some bite into Royal Liverpool.

''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''

Fowler piled up seven birdies through the first 12 holes, pulling even for the lead. But he couldn't keep it going, following up his bogey at No. 14 with an ugly bogey at the par-5 16th, one of the easiest holes on the course.

Fowler drove it into a bunker, was fortunate just to get out, and missed a par-saving putt from 8 feet away. That looked really bad when McIlroy came along a few minutes later in the final group, hit a soaring second shot that curled toward the flag, then rolled in the eagle putt.

The leader pumped his fist, sensing that he had regained his stranglehold on the third leg of a career Grand Slam, his score reaching 15 under.

Fowler and perennial contender Sergio Garcia were both at 10 under.

There were plenty of good scores to be had. France's Victor Dubuisson shot 68 and was in the clubhouse at 8-under 208. Italians Edoardo Molinari (209) and Matteo Manassero (210) also shot 68.

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.

His countryman McIlroy built his commanding lead with two straight 6-under 66s. He got off to a shaky start Saturday, 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 Johnson faded.

So did everyone else, for that matter.

Fowler has played well in the majors this year, beginning 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.

When he rolled in his third straight birdie at No. 12, and McIlroy came along next and made bogey, the two 25-year-olds - born less than five months apart - were tied for the lead.

Of course, McIlroy has more experience in these situations, 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, and it looks like he'll need a major comeback Sunday to break through.

Garcia, still seeking his first major as well, squandered several prime chances to take his score even lower - most notably, missing a 3-foot birdie try at No. 12.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson was hoping to make a big push after shooting 70 on Friday. 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 too far back.

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 a double bogey at the second - his 11th hole of the day - and a triple bogey at the seventh. He dropped a staggering 19 shots behind McIlroy.

Clearly, Woods is nowhere close to being able to contend for his 15th major title in just his second tournament since coming back from back surgery.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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