Rory McIlroy conducts electricity with thrilling third-round finish

Rory McIlroy

Rory McIlroy lines up his putt on the 11th green as spectators are packed on a hill behind him during the third round of the Open Championship on Saturday at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England. (Jon Super / Associated Press / July 19, 2014)

From Hoylake, England

The young maestro was coming. Something special was hanging in the air.

And so the fans, thousands of them, squeezed into the stands around the 18th hole at Royal Liverpool on Saturday afternoon. They knew they needed to be there, to embrace it, to be able to say they saw it.

They know their golf here. They know that their British Open, in history and challenge, is the best of the majors. They have come to tolerate the rest of us as we wax poetic about the Masters and prattle on about the way the U.S. Golf Assn. toughens up its U.S. Open courses.

They just sigh and roll their eyes now when we call their Open Championship the British Open. They know which one is the real Open. It doesn't matter that we don't.

The group in front of the young maestro approaches and is given its due. There is deserved heartfelt applause for Sergio Garcia and Rickie Fowler. They have made a couple of runs at the young maestro, have tried to make Sunday's final 18 holes more than a repeat of Martin Kaymer's Sunday march to the obvious in the recent U.S. Open.

Garcia stayed within striking distance and Fowler actually was tied for the lead for a couple of holes. But the young maestro, being who he is, took care of that down the stretch and now the only question is how big his lead will be on Sunday.

Fowler does his best. He rolls in a birdie putt and the scoreboard shows he is back to within four. That was the lead the young maestro had going into Saturday over Dustin Johnson, who couldn't keep pace.

The Garcia-Fowler group shakes hands and departs. A hush comes over the crowd. The only activity is the hustle and bustle of photographers, jockeying for position around the green.

In the distance, you can just make him out; light gray shirt and blue cap. No. 18 is a par-five that plays 551 yards, although on this day, the pin is so far back that it's closer to 570. He will tell us later that he was standing at 239 yards, meaning he had driven it about 330 to the middle of the fairway. He will also tell us later that the club in his hand was a five-iron.

Flags of all the countries represented in the tournament encircle the stands. They rustle a bit. The flag on the pin at 18 hangs limp. It is just before 4 p.m., meaning they are down to their last six hours or so of daylight here in the United Kingdom.

This was supposed to be a horrid day of rain, wind, thunder and lightning. Tournament officials had rescheduled play to avoid the worst of it. The adjacent Irish Sea was supposed to snarl. Instead, the day turned out to be overcast, warm and mostly pleasant, the kind of day Vin Scully, oft quoting the Irish, is fond of calling a "soft day."

In the distance, the young maestro swings. There is no mistaking the ease, the balance. It is like his arms and body were permanently connected to the golf club at birth. The gift is obvious and stunning. When he was 16, he shot a 61. The image is a young Mozart in short pants, legs not yet reaching the piano pedals, playing a concerto.

There is silence, then a crescendo of anticipation as the ball descends. Then the thump, the gentle roll and stop, 10 feet short of the pin.

Cameras click in a rush, like the crumbling of a staged domino collapse. The thousands in the stands rise in unison, their wonder, amazement and appreciation driving a thunderstorm of noise that is not a bit weather-related.

Rory McIlroy walks to them, that free-flowing stride unmistakable from 200 yards. He waves his putter. They cheer louder. He tips his cap. Louder. He smiles and waves again. Thunder.

"I got goose bumps," McIlroy says later.

But his business isn't done. He has a 10-foot eagle putt and wants to give it to them as much as they want to see it.

The thunder becomes a church. Hundreds of cameras point at him, none daring to click until he has moved the putter through the ball. A camera disruption at this moment might trigger a lynching.

The putter comes back, straight and true. The ball rolls the same. And when it hits the bottom of the cup, the thunder finds a new decibel level.

The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland has given them the magic they craved. His four-shot lead is now six. He has eagled two of the last three holes and his scorecard on the last eight holes reads: 3-5-3-3-3-3-5-3.

That is otherworldly. This isn't the John Deere Classic or the Azusa Greens member-guest. This is the British Open.

He will play with Fowler on Sunday and they will pretend to have neighborly fun. Fowler, originally from Murrieta, lives in Jupiter, Fla., now and McIlroy has his U.S. home nearby.

Possession of the Claret Jug is not a total guarantee because nothing is in this game.

"I have won from seven back this year," McIlroy says, warning we typists and blogheads not to get ahead of ourselves.

Those in the States who think this is over and don't want to miss their early Sunday morning sleep are probably right. Those who tune in and want drama are those who seek IndyCar wrecks or O. Henry endings.

Chances are, McIlroy's two eagles in his last three holes effectively put a stake through the heart of the rest of the field.

If that's the case, if Sunday marks the young maestro's third major title and the one his homeland will cherish and celebrate the most so far, then be ready for the whispers to become full-throated.

Rory McIlroy is the next Tiger Woods.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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