Mickelson used to despise this Open, and McIlroy didn't have much use for it, either. The kid from Northern Ireland was another high-ball player who preferred American weather to the raw, windswept conditions that define golf on his side of the Atlantic.
"I'm not a fan of golf tournaments that are outcomes predicted so much by the weather," he said after a 25th-place showing at the 2011 Open. "It's not my sort of golf. I'm looking forward to getting back to America, playing in Akron and obviously the PGA."
With links golf as the alternative, McIlroy wanted to get back to Akron as much as his buddy LeBron James did. Yet three years later, McIlroy suddenly looks as compatible with the Open as Tom Watson did in his day.
McIlroy did catch a bit of a break Saturday, as the forecast downpours arrived just after he finished his round. The R&A had sent off the players early and off both nines (a first for the Open), and the chasers were hoping some sideways rain and wind would blow sun-loving McIlroy into the River Dee.
The leader didn't buckle, not even close. Fowler and Sergio Garcia closed on him, and the young American pulled even with six holes to go. "But I never panicked," McIlroy said.
He kept talking to himself, whispering two secret words as a reminder to remain calm (He'll reveal those two words Sunday evening). McIlroy held steady and waited to pounce on the par-5 16th and 18th holes, where he knew he could throw a couple of devastating roundhouse rights.
He nailed a 4-iron from 252 yards at 16 and a 5-iron from 239 yards on 18 and drained both putts. McIlroy didn't need the second eagle at 18, but he demanded it of himself anyway.
"The way I look at it," he said, "6 shots is better than 5. ... I just wanted to try and be as much ahead as I possibly could. And that's why I was grinding over the putt at the last, to try to finish the round off well. I felt like those two shots into 18 deserved an eagle."
McIlroy turned in a score of 68, actually his worst round of the tournament, before speaking again about how comfortable he is leading the Open. His playing partner for Round 4, Fowler, isn't likely to make McIlroy tense up; Fowler is a likable sort and a McIlroy friend who lives near Rory's Jupiter, Florida, home.
So there will be no Sunday return of the 2011 McIlroy who blew the Masters, or even the 2013 McIlroy who begged out of a tournament with a toothache and who struggled to get a grip on his new Nike clubs. The McIlroy who shows up at Royal Liverpool for the final round will arrive without the baby fat. He's as solid as his chiseled physique.
Of Major Title No. 3, McIlroy said, "It would mean an awful lot."
It would mean he has started his initial ascent toward greatness, which is a hell of a place for a 25 year old to be.