Rory's story: Playing for history

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HOYLAKE, England -- The Open Championship field is now a battered and beaten mess at a stronger man's feet, and so Sunday at Royal Liverpool will not be about Rory McIlroy's quest for the Claret Jug. That game is over. That fight is won.

McIlroy will claim his third leg of a career Grand Slam, this much is certain. He's no longer that silly boy who led the 2011 Masters before shooting an ungodly 80 in the final round, and looking on the verge of tears along the way.

McIlroy has won a U.S. Open and a PGA Championship by a combined 16 shots and with a combined score of 29 under. If anyone thought he might crack Saturday after bogeying his first hole, after briefly losing his 4-stroke lead and falling into a tie with Rickie Fowler on the back nine, McIlroy buried that notion with two eagles on his final three holes, his version of a poster dunk in the closing seconds of a blowout.

At 16 under, carrying a lead of a half-dozen strokes entering the final round, McIlroy can break Tiger Woods' Open Championship scoring record of 19 under set at St. Andrews in 2000. You know Rory wants a piece of Tiger. You know Rory wants to become the first man to push his final score to 20 in any of the four majors.

Only he's playing for bigger-picture history now, and for his place in it. By the close of business Sunday, McIlroy will own three major titles at the age of 25 years and 2 months. Woods had five at the same age, and Jack Nicklaus was on the verge of No. 4.

But Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead didn't have any at 25 years, 2 months, and Gary Player and Byron Nelson each had one. So if McIlroy isn't going to be the Next Tiger -- if only because there isn't going to be a Next Tiger -- he still has some serious mountains to climb.

Can he go down as the greatest European player ever?

Can he become the first non-American to win 10 majors (Player leads with nine)?

Can this die-hard Manchester United fan form a dynasty all his own?

"It would mean a lot of hype going into Augusta next year," McIlroy said of Sunday's victory lap to come. "Not a lot of people have achieved the career Grand Slam. And if everything goes the right way tomorrow, to get to three-quarters of the way there is some achievement by the age of 25.

"I'd be in pretty illustrious company. ... I never thought that I'd be able to be in this position. I didn't think that I'd even have a chance at 25 to go for three legs of the Grand Slam."

McIlroy said that he didn't want his thoughts to get ahead of his game, that he would do everything he could to focus on something other than the rewards of certain victory.

Good luck with that.

"Just play a good, solid round of golf tomorrow," McIlroy said. "And if that means that I'm going to Augusta next year with a bit of hype, then so be it."

Funny how things work out. Last year at Muirfield, Phil Mickelson won an Open Championship his high-trajectory game was never supposed to win. He was 43 years old, playing the event for the 20th time.

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.

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