Updated: Saturday, 19 July 2014 21:12 | By Agence France-Presse

McIlroy holds firm at rain-hit Open

Rory McIlroy was battling hard to hold on to his lead in a rain-hit third round of the British Open on Saturday.

McIlroy holds firm at rain-hit Open

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy watches a tee shot during the British Open at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, northwest England, on July 19, 2014 - by Peter Muhly

The 25-year-old from Northern Ireland began the day with a four-stroke lead over nearest challenger Dustin Johnson of the United States, but after just one hole that was cut in half.

McIlroy only just made it out of a greenside bunker and bogeyed, while Johnson had a birdie.

That set the stage for a high-class chasing pack to start gunning after McIlroy's lead and one by one they edged closer.

But a timely birdie for McIlroy at the fifth to get back to level par for the day kept his challengers at bay and he then made two clutch par-saving putts at six and nine to stay ahead by three strokes.

Earlier, torrential rain drenched the players as they arrived for third round action at Royal Liverpool.

The atrocious weather had been forecast long in advance and, in an unprecedented move, tournament organisers the R&A decided to bring forward the start of play to earlier in the day at 9:00am and to use groupings of three going off from the first and 10th tees instead of everyone going off from the first in pairs as usually is the case at the weekend.

The idea was to cut in half the time needed to complete the third round, thus clearing the way for an on-time finish Sunday when the forecast was better.

The tricky conditions gave hope to some in the field who have watched an imperious McIlroy dominate the first half of the tournament.

Two rounds of 66 have left the 25-year-old Irishman at 12 under and four strokes clear of Johnson, whose 65 on Friday was the best of the tournament so far.

The rest of the field were at least six strokes back as McIlroy honed in on what would be his third major title, but first on British soil.

The world number seven said that he was unperturbed by the prospect of bad weather and that he had practiced for Hoylake with a links-type of golf in mind.

"I've practiced the shots that I might need in windy conditions or wet conditions or whatever it is," 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 and just try and play another solid round of golf."

"Whatever the weather is tomorrow I won't mind and just try and play another solid round of golf."

But that proved to be anything but solid as McIlroy opened with te bogey as the rain started to ease and the umbrellas came down.

Sergio Garcia and Rickie Folwer both picked up strokes to get to nine under at the turn with Johnson falling back due to three straight bogeys from the seventh.

Jim Furyk was alone at eight under after 11 with Frenchman Victor Dubuisson and Charl Schwartzel of South Africa on seven under coming down the back nine.

World number one Adam Scott started the day nine shots back, but still sounding confident he could claw his way back into contention for a first win in the British Open.

Scott though could make no headway as he stayed level par for the day through 13 holes.

Tiger Woods, who edged into the weekend's action with a birdie at the last on what is just his second tournament since back surgery in late March, had an excellent start from the 10th with two opening birdies to get back to level par.

He dropped one at the 15th, but further birdies at the 16th and first as he rounded the turn improved him to one under.

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