The Northern Irishman, ranked eighth in the world after going nearly two years without a Major championship victory, started with a bogey on the opening hole – but never looked back after that, firing seven birdies to finish 12 under par and open up a four-shot lead over the field.
Only some rare brilliance from Dustin Johnson, who completed a best-of-the-week 65 to come in at -8 soon after McIlroy finished, kept the field within four shots of the 25-year-old.
Six players shared third place on six under par, two behind Johnson.
Among them was Sergio Garcia, who holed his second shot for an eagle on the second hole of a topsy turvy round of 70, and 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, who fired six birdies in his round of 68.
Tiger Woods - Hoylake 2014
Francesco Molinari (70), Ryan Moore (68), Rickie Fowler (69) and former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel (67) were the other players to finish six shots off McIlroy’s lead.
Victor Dubuisson – the flamboyant Frenchman who finished runner up at the WGC Match Play earlier this year – also had a good round, matching McIlroy’s round of 66 to pull himself into contention at four under par.
Despite the brilliance of Dubuisson and Johhnson, the day belonged to one man, however: McIlroy, producing a staggering performance under pressure.
“I just wanted to focus on myself and stick to my gameplan, and I did that very well,” he said.
“Bogeying the first, I think I had 85 yards to the pin for my second shot – so that wasn’t he best way to start!" he chuckled about his poor start that raised fears of another Friday disaster.
“But after that I settled into the round really nicely.”
That is something of an understatement. Making the most of fine conditions for a second day running, McIlroy kickstarted his round with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 fitth, adding three more in quick succession on the 6th, 8th and 10th, then finished up with three more birdies in his last four holes.
At times he rode his luck, drawing good lies in the rough – most notably when pitching out of knee-high grass on the 10th to within two feet.
But his golf was genuinely outstanding – and at times breathtaking, as it was with his late trio of birdies.
The first of those, on the par-3 15th, came in exquisite fashion: with a cross-wind blowing hard on the tiny 150-yard hole, McIlroy chose an 8-iron – normally far too much club – but hit a three-quarter shot under the wind that pitched next to the hole and sat down, loaded with spin, for a tap-in birdie.
A 396-yard drive on the 17th left him a pitch-and putt birdie; and a 4-iron escape from the rough on the par-5 18th helped him set up his 13th birdie in 36 holes.
Though many were tied for the lead alongside him after that early bogey, once he took charge nobody in the field could get close to him.
Beyond that, McIlroy also silenced the many doubters who were waiting for him to implode once again – as he has on several Fridays over the past few seasons.
And McIlroy is not yet out of danger of implosion: after all, his first good chance to win a Major saw him lead the Masters going into the final round in 2011 before falling to pieces on the back nine.
He bounced back from that in style just two months later by winning the US Open with a record score.
And his US PGA Championship victory just over a year later was equally emphatic: McIlroy won by a record eight shots.
“I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been in this position before, I’ve enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to enjoying this weekend,” he said.
Those memories won’t just help McIlroy: they will also make the rest of the field believe that the tournament could already be beyond them – a possibility that McIlroy played down.
“I don’t know what the guys are thinking, but my self-belief, knowing I’ve been in this position before and been able to do it, that’ll hopefully stand for me over the weekend.”
It certainly should. McIlroy is now odds-on favourite to claim a maiden Open Championship and, with it, his third Major title.
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