Hoylake (United Kingdom) (AFP) - Rory McIlroy clamped a stranglehold on the British Open on Friday with a second straight round of 66 which left him four strokes clear of the field going into the weekend.
Seeking his first Open title after two major wins in the United States, McIlroy was imperious as he held at bay a chasing pack of the highest calibre and then calmly pulled away from them.
By the end of another enthralling day at the Royal Liverpool links, the 25-year-old from Northern Ireland was at 12-under, four shots clear of American Dustin Johnson, who had a 65, the best round of the tournament so far.
Two strokes further back were two more Americans, Ryan Moore (68) and Rickie Fowler (69), alongside Edoardo Molinari of Italy (70), Sergio Garcia of Spain (70) and South Africans Charl Schwartzel (67) and Louis Oosthuizen (68).
"I played really well, overall another really, really good day," McIlroy said.
"I have been lucky enough to have this feeling at majors before and hopefully I will be able to do it again. It gives me a lot of confidence.
"I haven't been in this positon before in an Open championship, though I feel really in control of my golf game."
Tiger Woods struggled manfully all day to match the 69 he fired on Thursday.
After a double-bogey-bogey start he held firm with a run of pars before a triple bogey seven at the 17th left him one shot outside of the cut mark.
However, a six-foot putt for birdie at the last for a 77 nudged him into the weekend's action - an achievement in itself.
McIlroy's overnight one stroke lead vanished almost instantly as he overhit his approach to the first for a bogey.
It was the first shot he had dropped in the tournament and the only mistake he made all day.
He was then joined on five under by Italians Matteo Manassero and Francesco Molinari, Brooks Koepka of the United States and Garcia, who eagled the par four second.
But McIlroy, striking the ball beautifully again, had back-to-back birdies at five and six to move two strokes clear of the field.
He then tamed the par-five 10th to go three clear before missing shortish birdie putts at the 11th and 12th which would have put him five clear had he made them.
No-one though was applying any real pressure on the tournament favourite and he made them pay for that with further birdies at the 15th, 17th and the last.
He could have led by six strokes, but Johnson birdied his final two holes to hold onto the Irishman's coattails.
It was all so reminiscent of the Congressional Club three years ago, when McIlroy came of age by leading wire-to-wire to win the US Open, his first major, by eight strokes.
Molinari though said he wasn't waving the white flag quite just yet.
"He's obviously very good (McIlroy), so we'll see," the London-based Italian said.
"It won't be easy trying to catch him up. But we're here to try and we'll do that on the weekend."
World number one Adam Scott had been expected to challenge McIlroy early in the day, but his putter let him down badly and a 73 left him at three under for the tournament and looking for some bad weather to revive his hopes.
"Seems like we're going to see it all over the weekend, maybe. Tomorrow doesn't look great, and I think that's all right," he said.
"The last 36 of the major is going to be a grind. And if it's tough conditions, you know, I'm certainly up for that challenge.
"The tougher it gets I think more of that favours me, if I can keep swinging well."
Indeed the forecast for Saturday predicts "disruptive weather" and a "significant risk of thunderstorms and heavy rain."
The forecast is so bad that tournament organisers the R&A have decided to bring forward the start of play to earlier in the day at 9:00am and, in an unprecedented move, to use groupings of three going off from the first and 10th tees instead of everyone going off from the first in pairs.
Woods, playing for just the second time since undergoing back surgery in late March admitted that his chances of winning for a second time at Hoylake were all but over.
"I got off to a terrible start again. I had some opportunities, but I never made anything. I had myself in good position to make birdies but I never did.
"Hopefully I can do something like Paul (Lawrie) did (at Carnoustie) in 1999 - make up 10 in one day."
The axe for the cut fell at two over and notable casualties were English former world number one Lee Westwood at three over, Masters Champion Bubba Watson at four over and the Open champion of two years ago, Ernie Els, at eight over.