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Rory McIlroy in Command at British Open

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Rory McIlroy (Photo Getty)

HOYLAKE, England — With a thunderous drive down the middle of the fairway, Rory McIlroy began the final round of the British Open with a commanding lead Sunday and a keen sense of history.

McIlroy knew that a victory at Royal Liverpool would give him the third leg in a career Grand Slam. He already won the U.S. Open in 2011 and the PGA Championship in 2012.

“I’ve got a lot to play for,” he said beforehand. “This is a huge day for me.”

Not backing off a bit, he pulled out the driver at No. 1 and rocketed it more than 300 yards, straight as can be. Then, after sticking his approach to 15 feet, he rolled in the birdie putt to take his score to 17 under – just two shots away from matching Tiger Woods’ scoring record for any major in relation to par. Woods won the 2000 Open at St. Andrews with a `19-under total.

The 25-year-old McIlroy began the day with a six-stroke lead. Barring an unprecedented collapse, he would head to Augusta National next spring looking to join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen as the only players to win all four of golf’s biggest events.

Only Woods and Nicklaus won three of the majors at 25 or younger.

McIlroy posted three straight rounds in the 60s on the way to a 16-under 200. He teed off in the final group with Rickie Fowler, knowing that a victory would also mean a big payday for his dad.

British media reported that Gerry McIlroy and three of his friends placed a combined bet of 400 pounds (now $680) in 2004 on McIlroy winning the British Open before he turned 26.

McIlroy was 15 at the time.

The odds were 500-1, so they would win 200,000 pounds ($340,000) if McIlroy lifted the claret jug.

They had to like their chances. No player had surrendered such a big lead on the final day of the Open.

Fowler was at 206, while Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia were another shot back. The only other players closer than 10 shots to the lead were France’s Victor Dubuisson (208) and Italy’s Edoardo Molinari (209).

Storms rumbled through Hoylake after the third round, which the R&A wisely started early off two tees because of the forecast, but there was plenty of sunshine for the early starters Sunday and a freshening breeze off the Irish Sea.

Sixty-four-year-old Tom Watson, playing what is likely his next-to-last British Open, showed he’s still got plenty of game by shooting a 4-under 68. He finished at 1-over 289 for the tournament.

“It was a good day,” said Watson, a five-time Open champion who will be the U.S. captain for the Ryder Cup this fall. “I played a real solid round of golf.”

No so for Tiger Woods. Playing only his second tournament since back surgery, he had hoped to give Watson a strong reason to be included on that American team. Woods sure didn’t impress at Royal Liverpool, finishing five shots behind the captain.

Woods made another double bogey – his third of the week, to go along with two triple bogeys – and struggled to the finish with a 75. That left him at 294 for the week and a staggering 22 shots behind McIlroy before the leader even teed off.

“I just made too many mistakes,” Woods said, “way too many mistakes.”

Representing Canada, Brampton native David Hearn sits tied for 36th and at par.