HOYLAKE, England — Rory McIlroy only saw birdies at Royal Liverpool, mostly on his scorecard, and even one pheasant that trotted across the eighth green as he was lining up a putt. That was but a minor interruption in his command performance Friday in the British Open.
Once he made a birdie, and then another, nothing could stop McIlroy.
Not another collapse in the second round. Not anyone in the field. And certainly not Tiger Woods.
After a bogey on his opening hole stirred memories of another "Black Friday," McIlroy looked more like the Boy Wonder who won two majors in a runaway. With three birdies in his last four holes, he posted a second straight 6-under 66 to build a four-shot lead over Dustin Johnson.
McIlroy spoke of an "inner peace," and the two secret words that triggered his powerful swing and set up birdie chances on just about every hole.
"People call it the zone, people call it whatever," he said. "It's just a state of mind where you think clearly. Everything seems to be on the right track. I've always said, whenever you play this well, you always wonder how you've played so badly before. And whenever you've played so badly, you always wonder how you play so well. I'm happy where my game is at the minute. And hopefully, I can just keep up the solid play for another couple of days."
Woods is fortunate to even play for two more days.
He started the second round only three shots behind. He finished it on the 18th hole, standing over a 6-foot birdie putt just to avoid missing back-to-back cuts for the first time in his career. Woods made the putt for a 77, matching his second-worst round as a pro in the British Open.
Woods hit driver five times — four more than he hit all week when he won at Royal Liverpool in 2006. None found the fairway. Woods was 14 shots out of the lead and still thought he had a chance, referring to Paul Lawrie making up 10 shots in one round to win at Carnoustie in 1999.
That was against Jean Van de Velde. This is Rory McIlroy, who has won both his majors by eight shots.
"Two 66s from Rory is a bit special, but he is just that — he is a bit special," Graeme McDowell said. "So he's going to be tough to catch this weekend if he keeps that up."
McIlroy was at 12-under 132 — the same 36-hole score of Woods in 2006.
Dustin Johnson birdied the last two holes for a 65, the low score of the week. That ordinarily would put him in the last group with McIlroy, except they will have company in a historic decision at golf's oldest championship. Because of a nasty storm approaching England, the Open will go to threesomes teeing off on both sides Saturday.
Francesco Molinari (70) will join them. He was part of a large group at 6-under 138 that included Rickie Fowler (69), Sergio Garcia (70), Charl Schwartzel (67), Louis Oosthuizen (68) and Ryan Moore (68).
Johnson had a chance at the claret jug three years ago until a 2-iron that went out-of-bounds on the 14th hole at Royal St. George's. He also lost a three-shot lead in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and missed out on a playoff at Whistling Straits for grounding his club in sand at the 2010 PGA Championship.
"I'm glad and I'm in the last group," Johnson said. "Just go out there and try to shoot a big number."
Four shots can be lost quickly in any major, especially in links golf, particularly in nasty weather. McIlroy followed up a record-tying 63 at St. Andrews in 2010 with an 80 the following day. Even so, the ease with which he moved around Royal Liverpool was more frightening than any forecast.
McIlroy picked up his first birdie with two putts from across the green on the par-5 fifth. But it was on the par-3 sixth, when McIlroy deposited an 8-iron to 7 feet for birdie, that he found that peace and put the pedal down on the rest of the field.
He ushered the pheasant off the eighth green, regrouped and holed a 7-foot birdie putt, chipped to tap-in range on the 10th and then kept giving himself chances on all but one hole until ending with three birdies. McIlroy was in such a groove that with the wind at his back, he hit driver 396 yards on the 17th hole and pitched to 8 feet.
It was only Friday — a fantastic one, not a freaky one — but the kid looked like he was going for a knockout.
"Once I got to 7 (under), I felt like, 'OK, this time I feel good. I can get to 8. I can get to 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.'"
The 17th hole is where Woods fell apart. He started double bogey-bogey and made only pars the rest of the way until his tee shot on the 17th was about 100 yards short and 50 yards wider than McIlroy's drive.
Hanging his head, Woods was walking down the fairway when he was told it was out of bounds. Back at the tee, he hooked that shot closer to the 16th fairway and made triple bogey.
A birdie enabled him to make the cut, a small consolation considering what McIlroy is doing.
"It's not a surprise. He's done this before," Woods said. "Once he gets going, he can make a lot of birdies and he plays pretty aggressively to begin with. And when he's going, he can get it going pretty good."
As for those two secret words that keep McIlroy locked into what he's doing?
"I'll tell you on Sunday, hopefully," he said.
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