Don't give up hope at the Open

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HOYLAKE, England -- Phil Mickelson isn't going to win back-to-back Open Championships. Not even close.

But as everyone but the queen herself rushes to engrave the Claret Jug with leader Rory McIlroy's name, it's important to remember what Lefty did a year ago in the final round at Muirfield. Important for McIlroy. Important for those chasing him.

Down by 5 shots entering the day, Mickelson steered his game into the speed lane and flashed his high beams as he zoomed to the top of the leaderboard. It took perhaps one of the finest rounds of Mickelson's career to do it, but it happened.

And it could happen again Sunday here at Royal Liverpool. Just a few simple things need to occur:

-- McIlroy needs to contract shingles.

-- A major airline needs to lose his clubs between now and his Sunday afternoon tee time.

-- He needs to unexpectedly retire from golf, choosing instead to pursue a career as a folk singer.

Of course, none of this going to happen. McIlroy will report to the first tee as the prohibitive favorite to win the jug. I'm not saying he's a lock to leave Hoylake with the third leg of a career Grand Slam, but he does have a 6-stroke lead and the look of someone who isn't awed by the moment.

McIlroy isn't a sure thing, but he's close. Close to going wire to wire to win a third major before his 26th birthday. Close to stuffing a head cover into the mouths of everyone who said his game was lost at sea.

This Open Championship was a lot more interesting when McIlroy was walking off the 12th green Saturday. By then, Rickie Fowler had earlier birdied the 12th to climb to 12 under for the tournament, and McIlroy had just bogeyed it to fall into a tie. Hello, drama!

But after the 14th hole, McIlroy was up by 2 shots, then 5 shots after the 16th, then 6 shots after the 18th. Suddenly you needed Doppler radar to find the rest of the field on the Open Championship screen.

There's still hope for a tight finish. Mickelson taught us that last year at Muirfield. Paul Lawrie taught us that at Carnoustie in 1999, when he overcame a 10-shot Sunday deficit to become "champion golfer of the year."

Of course, Mickelson had to overcome a 5-stroke lead, not 6. And Lawrie benefited from the 18th-hole madness of Frenchman Jean Van de Velde, who needed only a double-bogey on the final hole to clinch the title but instead made triple.

McIlroy isn't going to do a Van de Velde and remove his brain from his skull. And don't hold your breath for him to shoot 80, as he did as the Sunday leader of the 2011 Masters. Those days are gone -- I think.

Despite the big lead, there is enough pedigree on the leaderboard to make it interesting. Maybe even Mickelson-like historic.

Fowler, only five months older than McIlroy, was on his way to a low-60-something round before settling for a 4-under-par 68. He's at 10 under and remains the only player this year to finish in the top five in the Masters and the U.S. Open. He's due.

"Now [Sunday], if I can go out and learn from what I did there at the U.S. Open and try and get off to a bit of a better start, maybe I'm able to put a bit of pressure on Rory," Fowler said. "And maybe we can get into a fun little match come the back nine."

Sounds good to me.

Meanwhile, Sergio Garcia is at 9 under. So is Dustin Johnson. Garcia is on the very short list of Best Players Never To Have Won A Major. Johnson is on the even shorter list of Best Players Who Would Have Won A Major Had They Remembered To Play Everything As A Bunker.

Garcia doesn't seem to like his chances. He has done the math.

"If [McIlroy] shoots 3 under, I have to shoot 10 [under]," he said.

He added: "If Rory plays the way he's been playing ? it's difficult to see anybody catching him when he's playing like that."

Victor Dubuisson, not to be dismissed, is at 8 under. He'll be playing to avenge all the jokes made about Van de Velde's play on the 18th hole in 1999.

At 7 under is Edoardo Molinari, followed by fellow Italian Matteo Manassero at 6 under. Also at 6 under are world No. 1 Adam Scott, world not-No. 1 Robert Karlsson (140th, actually), Jim Furyk and Charl Schwartzel. They're on the fringe of scoreboard relevance.

Could Scott go Yellow Submarine low? (Clich├ęd Liverpool Beatles reference.) If anybody could out of the minus-6 guys, he's the one.

Could Dubuisson, ranked 23rd in the world, defy golf logic?

Could Garcia or Johnson make the impossible possible?

Could Fowler, who first played against McIlroy in the 2007 Walker Cup (the USA won, by the way), earn his first major?

Uh ? doubtful.

"First things first," McIlroy said. "Just play a good solid round of golf [Sunday]."

One way or another, Sunday will be McIlroy's day. It will be his day of triumph and celebration. Or it will be his day of despair, when he has to explain how he lost a 6-shot 54-hole lead.

If that happens, he really might take up folk singing.

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