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SOUTHPORT, England (AP) — Rory McIlroy swiped the air with his putter and threw back his head in disgust after under-hitting a mid-range birdie putt on the 18th green at Royal Birkdale.
It was fitting. On a low-scoring day at the British Open, McIlroy came up short.
It all started so well for the Northern Irishman in his third round: A birdie from six feet at the first; back-to-back birdies on Nos. 4 and 5. A player who was racked with self-doubt when 5 over after six holes on Thursday was now 4 under for the tournament and only three shots off the lead on Saturday.
There was that familiar bounce in his step. There was a buzz around the course, with McIlroy suddenly in contention. Could this be the beginning of a charge seen so often by the four-time major winner?
Didn't turn out that way.
A hooked tee shot and a duffed chip from thick rough led to a bogey on the par-3 seventh hole. His approach to No. 8 was short of the green and another loose pitch, to 12 feet, cost him another shot. Then came the 10th hole, where it all went wrong.
McIlroy acknowledged he took the wrong club off the tee, pulling a 3-iron into a pot bunker even though he knew he could eliminate the traps with a 1-iron or lay up with a 4-iron. He splashed out into another bunker, about 10 yards ahead, and could hit out only to the left of the green. He wound up with a double-bogey 6.
"I've always been good, when I get off to fast starts, being able to keep it going," he said, "and I didn't today. And I needed to."
A 1-under 69 just didn't cut it on a day of perfect conditions when Branden Grace was shooting 62 — the lowest ever score at a major — and Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar were shooting 65 and 66, respectively, in the final group.
McIlroy will start the final round on 2 under and nine shots off Spieth, the leader.
"I definitely feel like today was an opportunity lost to get right in the mix going into tomorrow," McIlroy said.
"There (were) low scores out there and people, they're not making mistakes. If you keep it in play, it's almost hard to make a bogey out there."
That was McIlroy's problem. He had just 43 percent accuracy off the tee and he didn't hole enough putts on the back nine.
Sloppy swings and silly errors have been part of McIlroy's game for some time now. He arrived at Birkdale having missed the cut at three of his previous four tournaments, while the error-strewn start to his first round virtually ruled him out of contention for a second claret jug.
He said he is struggling with right-to-left shots, and has been working on simplifying his putting routine after getting "bogged down in technical thoughts."
McIlroy hasn't won a major since the U.S. PGA Championship in 2014 — a streak of 10 — and doesn't have a victory in 2017, in which he had two separate spells out with a rib injury.
"It's not quite where I need it to be to win the biggest golf tournaments in the world," McIlroy said. "But it's getting there."
Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80
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