HOYLAKE, England -- Rory McIlroy looked as though he had just thrown a knockout punch at the British Open, and it was only Saturday.

When he rolled in a 10-foot eagle putt on the final hole for a 4-under 68, he straightened his back, stared at thousands of fans crammed into the horseshoe arena around the 18th green at Royal Liverpool and lightly pumped his fist.

He went from being tied for the lead to six shots ahead of Rickie Fowler in just over an hour.

And suddenly, the biggest challenge facing the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland was reminding himself that he had one round left.

McIlroy can't afford to picture his name etched on the base of that silver claret jug. He can't think about what it will be like next April to drive down Magnolia Lane at Augusta National with a shot at becoming the sixth player to capture the career Grand Slam.

"I'm not taking anything for granted," McIlroy said.

He knows that from experience, good and bad. He blew a four-shot lead at the Masters in 2011 and shot 80 in the final round. He had an eight-shot lead at the U.S. Open two months later and set two scoring records to win by eight. And just two months ago, McIlroy came from seven shots behind to win by seven.

It looks like a lost cause for Fowler, Sergio Garcia and anyone else trying to chase down McIlroy.


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"A lot can happen," said McIlroy, who is at 16-under 200. "And I've been on the right side of it, and I've been on the wrong side of it. You can't let yourself think forward. You've just got to completely stay in the moment, and that's what I'm going to try to do for all 18 holes (Sunday)."

History is on his side. No one has ever lost a six-shot lead in the 121 years that The Open has been contested over 72 holes.

"What you have with him is he's just so explosive," Jim Furyk said after a 71 left him 10 shots behind. "He obviously doesn't have any issue as the front-runner, and has no issue trying to extend that lead."

"If I'm able to go out and get off to a good start, maybe I can put a little bit of pressure on him," Fowler said after a 68. "Because he's definitely in control of the golf tournament right now."

Fowler tried to do his part on a cloudy Saturday with occasional rain, but not nearly what the R&A expected when it went to a two-tee start for the first time in history. Fowler, who was six shots behind going into the third round, ran off three straight birdies to start the back nine and shared the lead when McIlroy made bogey on No. 12.

It all changed quickly.

Fowler made a bogey on the 14th hole. McIlroy, playing in the group behind, drilled a 35-foot birdie putt that put his lead back to two shots.

"Rickie was just getting close to me," McIlroy said. "I could hear the cheers in front of me. I just wanted to get ahead. To hole a putt like that was huge."

McIlroy blasted a drive on the par-5 16th hole and hit 4-iron from 252 yards over a pot bunker to the left side of the green and made a 15-foot eagle putt. That restored his lead to five shots, for Fowler had driven into a pot bunker and made a bogey.

Fowler recovered with a superb shot out of the pot bunker on the 18th to tap-in range for birdie that put him into Sunday's final group.

Garcia was three shots behind at the turn until missing a short birdie putt on No. 12 and failing to convert many other chances. Garcia had a 69 and was seven shots behind, along with Dustin Johnson (71).

This was McIlroy's show, just as it was at the 2011 U.S. Open, just as it was at the 2012 PGA Championship.

And yet the biggest crowd belonged to Woods, who is playing his first major since back surgery four months ago. Woods narrowly made the cut Friday, opened with two straight birdies, and that was about all the excitement. He made another double bogey, another triple bogey and shot 73. He is 19 shots off the lead.

The biggest challenge for McIlroy might be to avoid looking ahead. It was hard. Asked what it would mean to be one major away from a Grand Slam at 25, McIlroy said, "It would mean a lot of hype going into Augusta next year.

"I'd be in pretty illustrious company," he said.

LEADER BOARD
After third round
Royal Liverpool Golf Club; par 72
Player Scores Par
Rory McIlroy 66-66-68 -16
Rickie Fowler 69-69-68 -10
Sergio Garcia 68-70-69 -9
Dustin Johnson 71-65-71 -9
Notables
Adam Scott 68-73-69 -6
Phil Mickelson 74-70-71 -1
Tiger Woods 69-77-73 +3
Tom Watson 73-73-75 +5
Full leader board, PAGE 5