Rory McIlroy recovered from a nervy start to blow away the field at Hoylake and take a daunting six-shot lead into the final round, with his American counterpart Rickie Fowler leading a chasing pack.
Spain's Sergio Garcia shot 69 to sit seven adrift at minus nine alongside USA's Dustin Johnson who came home in 34 to give himself slim hope of securing his maiden major title.
The enigmatic Frenchman Victor Dubuisson will start eight back of McIlroy, needing a miracle of Paul Lawrie proportions if he is to have any chance of lifting the Claret Jug.
Tiger Woods, however, will not be adding to his 14 major titles at Hoylake after yet another double-triple combination saw him drift out to plus three following a disappointing 73 on a Saturday that offered low-scoring conditions.
On a leaderboard heavily dominated by the European contingent, Italian duo Matteo Manassero (68) and Edoardo Molinari (68), as well as Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell (68) and Darren Clarke (67), all impressed on day three to sit comfortably inside the top 15.
Justin Rose continues to lead the home charge on three under, but will have to wait another year at least for his first Open win with his Ryder Cup teammate McIlroy bullying the Wirral links course for the third day running.
Aided by a two-tee start for the first time in the history of the Open championship, the 25-year-old looked slightly uneasy as he headed to the first an hour before midday - a highly unusual starting time for a major leader on a Saturday.
So it was almost unsurprising that he was once again made to settle for bogey down the first after he pulled a routine wedge into the green side pot bunker and failed to get up-and-down. Playing partner Johnson converted his short birdie putt, immediately reducing the deficit from four to just two.
Then, after finding the green in two at the par-four second, he raced his first putt well past the hole and faced an early test of mettle to avoid opening with consecutive bogeys, which he duly passed by rolling in his par putt in in confident fashion.
While McIlroy was making hard work of his start, fellow 25-year-old Fowler was making hay of calm conditions to assert early pressure on the 36-hole leader. Back-to-back birdies on one and two were the perfect start for the young American, and when he added two further gains to his scorecard at four and five, McIlroy's four-shot lead was reduced to just one.
The double major champion, a far-cry from the young man who collapsed on Masters Sunday three years ago, has evidently benefitted enormously from that haunting experience and it showed throughout his third round.
Despite Fowler's exertions, the 36-hole leader refused to give an inch and when he birdied the fifth for the third day in-a-row following another fine putt, he led by two again, which soon became three.
A superb outward nine of 32 from the fashionable Fowler had plenty of people talking of a Sunday showdown between the 2007 Walker Cup opponents, a feeling which intensified at the start of his back nine following a hat-trick of birdies that saw him reign McIlroy's lead in for the first - and only - time on Saturday.
Whatever Fowler was doing, it did not unsettle the Ulsterman as he continued to find fairways and greens with considerable aplomb. His putting has been superb all week, so it came as little surprise when he rolled in a double-breaker from 25 foot on 11 to take the solo lead once more.
An uncharacteristic error followed at the next when he missed a short putt for par, a mistake that in the past may have sparked a mini-McIlroy collapse. Eight-stroke wins at the 2011 US Open and 2012 US PGA, as well as a completely dominant spell towards the end of the 2012 season, have reaffirmed his own self-belief and even after that dropped shot, he remained in complete control.
Fowler, though, despite being the same age as the man he was hunting down, has only recently begun to live up to his billing as America's next star. He has shown promise aplenty, especially at the year's opening majors at Augusta and Pinehurst, but just one PGA Tour win - ironically when he defeated McIlroy in a playoff at Quail Hollow - has seen some question his undeniable talent.
But those questions are based upon his failure to do the business in potentially tournament-defining moments and after putting himself in a fine position to reel in his fellow competitor on the closing stretch, he went the other way. Bogeys at 14, 16 and 17 gave McIlroy ample breathing space, and when he himself birdied the par-four 14th to his obvious delight, he smelled blood.
Fresh off a quarter-of-a-mile drive at last week's Scottish Open, McIlroy's tremendous power off the tees have made every par five on the brilliantly prepared Royal Liverpool course accessible to the Northern Irishman, and with his long-iron game on point and akin to Woods' '06 exploits, he closed out brilliantly and left those chasing him effectively clutching at straws.
At 16, he found the green in two and made the most of the opportunity by sinking the resulting eagle putt to further extend the widening gap between him and Fowler. The latter's birdie at 18, after a brilliantly executed bunker shot that ended at gimme distance, stemmed the tide - but only momentarily.
Despite McIlroy's failure to get down in two on 17, his response was ominous. Another crushed driver found the fairway yet again, and when his stunning three iron pitched and released towards the accessible 18th pin, he had seven foot for his second eagle in three holes the possibility of an almost impregnable six-shot, 54-hole lead.
It went in, dead centre. The fans in the brilliantly assembled amphitheatre rose to their feet - they knew.
Of course, a lead of that magnitude does not guarantee victory, as Greg Norman will tell you. But it would take something that is scarcely believable for someone that isn't McIlroy to win.
He won't let this chance pass him by. At 25-years-old, he will join two fairly successful golfers - Jack Nicklaus and Woods - as the only players in history to have three majors at this stage of their careers.
By early evening tomorrow, the player who looked broken on Augusta's back nine just three years ago could be just a Green Jacket away from a scintillating career Grand Slam.
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