HOYLAKE, England -- Rory McIlroy was in one of those zones again on Friday at The Open Championship.
You know, the kind he was in at the 2011 U.S. Open when he lapped the field at Congressional County Club and won by eight. Or the one on that wild and windy weekend at Kiawah Island where McIlroy turned a two-stroke deficit into another eight-stroke victory at the 2012 PGA Championship.
The young Northern Irishman walked the fairways at Royal Liverpool with extreme confidence during the third round. At times he seemed to know even before he hit a shot that it was going to be good.
Over and over again, it was, too, as McIlroy posted his second straight 66 to open a four-stroke advantage over Dustin Johnson. The American needed the low round (7-under 65) of the tournament just to keep McIlroy in his sites.
Whether McIlroy will claim the third leg of the career Grand Slam at the tender age of 25 will be decided on an unsettled weekend at Hoylake -- not unlike what he faced on that toney South Carolina island two years ago.
What weather forecasters are calling a Spanish Plume is due to arrive in the wee hours, bringing with it thunderstorms, gusty winds and even hail by Saturday evening.
The outlook is so bad that tournament officials made the unprecedented decision to send players off Nos. 1 and 10 in threesomes to get as much of the third round completed as possible. McIlroy, not surprisingly, isn't worried.
"I feel like I'm ready for whatever conditions come because I've practiced the last few weeks in links-type conditions," he said. "... And in a way, having that four-shot lead isn't a bad thing because it makes it tougher for the guys to catch you. Whatever the weather is tomorrow I won't mind."
That mind is key, too. McIlroy has all the shots, and he's demonstrated that on many occasions. But when he's thinking as clearly as he was on Friday -- and picking apart the links where Bobby Jones won the third leg of his Grand Slam in the process -- McIlroy has the best of both worlds.
He also has shown the ability to ride that momentum -- even if he'll need to batten down the hatches on Saturday.
"I don't know if I can describe it," McIlroy said when asked to describe his mood during the second round. "It's just like I have an inner peace on the golf course. ... I'm very comfortable in this posititon. I'm very comfortable doing what I'm doing right now. I wish I could get into it more often."
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Rickie Fowler first met and played with Rory McIlroy at the 2007 Walker Cup at Royal County Down. Even then, the American could see McIlroy was a "go-to" kind of guy.
McIlroy turned pro after the matches were complete and won his first European Tour event less than two years later at the age of 19. He's now got 12 total, evenly divided on both sides of the Atlantic, and is poised for another this weekend at Royal Liverpool.
"It's been fun to kind of watch him go on and keep progressing," Fowler said. "... I feel like he's done definitely a really good job of living up to expectations and playing well."
Fowler has dealt with expectations, as well. One of the game's top amateurs, he ended up waiting two years to play and picked up his first win at the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship.
The Oklahoma State product appears to be coming into his own this year, particularly at the major championships where he tied for fifth at the Masters and shared second at the U.S. Open. A second straight 69 at Royal Liverpool landed the colorful Fowler in a tie for third.
"I feel like this week is the most definitely very comfortable with the expectations of knowing I want to be in contention and I want to be here to have a chance to win the golf tournament," Fowler said. "So it's fun going through the process and kind of moving forward and putting myself in positions to be around for the weekends at majors."
THE TAKEAWAY: News and nuggets from Round 2
Rory remains while Tiger teeters
AGELESS WONDER: Tom Watson became the oldest player to play the weekend at The Open Championship for the second time in his career on Friday.
The ageless Ryder Cup captain shot his second straight 73 and made the cut on the number, along with Tiger Woods, among others. Watson is 64 years and 10 months old and made the cut for the 26th time in 37 starts at golf's oldest major.
Two years ago at Royal Lytham, Watson eclipsed Bob Charles' record, set in 1996 when he was 60 years and four months old.
"I came over here with a purpose -- to play my best golf and play on the weekend," Watson said. "... See if the old guy can maybe get it rolling a little bit."
After all, this is a man who lost The Open in a playoff to Stewart Cink a mere five years ago. And Watson bettered his age earlier this year, shooting 63 at the Toshiba Classic on the Champions Tour.
"There's no age when I'm out there," Watson said. "I'm doing the same thing as I did when I was 22 years old although I can't hit the ball very hard anymore."
Jim Furyk, who played with Watson and Darren Clarke during the first two rounds, said the affection the people in the UK have for Watson was neat to see.
"I just thought it was fun to walk up to some of the tees and the ovation he got and watching the fans interaction with him," Furyk said. "Every time he'd make a birdie, he'd kind of fist pump and look at the crowd. It was a pretty cool experience."
BEST SOCIAL MEDIA OF THE DAY
2 tee start tomorrow at the British Open??? I have A/c in my house this week.. And ice in my freezer... Where am I???— Brandt Snedeker (@BrandtSnedeker) July 18, 2014
Surely not! A 2 tee start!!!!— Lee Westwood (@WestwoodLee) July 18, 2014
Listen to all my followers. U can delete me I don't care. It's a fact the afternoon wave today is 5 shots easier over two days. #fact— sv (@thescottvail) July 18, 2014
Now that is what I call wrong side of the draw :-( need a good moving day tomorrow! #TheOpen— Martin Kaymer (@MKaymer59) July 18, 2014
The difference between early/late and late/early times this week @The_Open is about 4 to 5 shots. Way the draw goes sometimes!— Billy Horschel (@BillyHo_Golf) July 18, 2014
The real @The_Open showed up today!Much tougher conditions & something that I would never forget.Holed out for eagle on the 2nd like in 2006— Sergio Garcia (@TheSergioGarcia) July 18, 2014
"I'm thinking about picking the captain." Tom Watson, who will guide the U.S. Team in the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, after making the cut at The Open Championship
"Getting my rain gear ready as soon as I'm done talking to you." Jim Furyk, who is 5 under, on his preparations for Saturday's inclement weather
"When you're spending time with your wife and your family and your child, there's no reason to search scores. There's no reason to see what the NBA is doing, football or baseball is doing." Bubba Watson on why he doesn't have any apps on his smartphone anymore
"I prefer when it's very difficult and that is what The Open is all about. It's about grinding it out and being happy when you make a par." Martin Kaymer, the two-time major champ who starts the third round 1 over
ODDS AND ENDS
-- The second-round leader/co-leader has held on for the win 45 times in The Open Championship history. The most recent to achieve the feat was Darren Clarke in 2011.
-- Rory McIlroy is a six-time winner on the PGA TOUR and is in search of his first win since the 2012 BMW Championship. He has amassed six titles on the European Tour, with the most recent coming at this year’s BMW PGA Championship.
-- Dustin Johnson, an eight-time winner on the PGA TOUR, is looking to join Jimmy Walker (Frys.com Open, Sony Open in Hawaii, AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am), Patrick Reed (Humana Challenge, WGC-Cadillac Championship) Bubba Watson (Northern Trust Open, Masters) and Martin Kaymer (PLAYERS Championship, U.S. Open) as a multiple winner this year.
-- Sergio Garcia, who's tied for third at 6-under 138, has now made the cut in 14 of 18 The Open Championship starts. He owns seven top-10 finishes, of which three are top fives. In 2007, he lost in a playoff to Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie.
-- There are 37 players making their The Open Championship debut this week. Only nine players have won The Open Championship in their first appearance: Ben Curtis (2003), Tom Watson (1975), Tony Lema (1964), Ben Hogan (1953), Denny Shute (1933), Jock Hutchison (1921), Mungo Park (1874), Tom Kidd (1873) and Willie Park Sr. (1860).
-- John Singleton, the local factory worker who made headlines by qualifying for The Open, made birdie on three of his final four holes Friday to shoot 2-under 70. He finished at 4-over 148 (78-70) to miss the cut by two shots.
Category Leader(s) Statistic Driving accuracy H. Stenson 23 of 28 (82.1 percent) Greens in regulation J. Dufner, R. Moore, P. Casey, D. Johnson 28 of 36 (77.8 percent) Fewest putts R. McIlroy, F. Molinari, M. Warren, G. Coetzee 53 Scrambling J. Singleton 15 ups-and-down Total birdies R. McIlroy, C. Schwartzel 13 Low Round D. Johnson 65 Hole stats Hardest hole (in Rd. 2) Par-4 seventh hole 4.4 Easiest hole (in Rd. 2) Par-5 fifth hole 4.62
Rory McIlroy fires second straight 66 at The Open