Street. ANDREWS, Scotland — Standing in one of the Old Course’s 112 bunkers on Saturday, Rory McIlroy was about to be right where he wanted to be: atop the British Open leaderboard.
His drive into the tenth hole landed him in trouble but not much trouble, as he stopped in the middle of the sand trap defending the front of the green.
McIlroy had room to swing freely, and his second shot flew over the edge of the bunker, bounced three times and then rolled a few more feet into the cup for the eagle.
The teacher’s 27-yard hit gave McIlroy a one-shot lead over Victor Hovland, his playing partner.
“It was a skill to get close to somewhere,” McIlroy said. “But it was fortunate that she got into the hole. You need a little luck now and then, especially in these big tournaments. And that was a great bonus.”
A pleasant surprise was one that could make the difference between winning or losing a major tournament, and Hovland got his own bonus on Friday when he smashed out of rough ground from 139 yards for an Eagle in 15 bars.
But Hovland, the 24-year-old Norwegian who excelled at Oklahoma State before turning pro in 2019, didn’t allow McElroy to enjoy the lead alone for long. He quickly rolled McIlroy with a birdie on day 10 which put them at 15 below par, then duel on the back nine of golf’s most historic.
McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, was certainly a crowd favorite, but Hovland, a dynamic presence, didn’t hold back from the challenge. They finished two identical rounds of 66 and a share of the lead at 16-under that left them four shots ahead of a chase group led by American Cameron Young and Australian Cameron Smith, both in 12-under before Sunday. .
Among the top four men on the leaderboard, McIlroy, 33, is already a big champion, but his last of four victories came in 2014 when he won the British Open at Royal Liverpool.
Since then, he’s had a lot of disappointing Sundays.
“You’re not given anything,” he said, “and I have to go out and win it, just as I’ve earned everything else in my career.”
Other big heroes are also in range. American Scottie Scheffler, who won the Masters in April and is ranked No. 1 in the world, at 11 below, and tied with Kim Si-woo of South Korea. Dustin Johnson, a two-time main winner from the US who recently jumped to the breakaway series LIV Golf, is alone at the age of 10 after a mood swing of 71 on Saturday.
Matt Fitzpatrick, the Englishman who won the US Open this year, is nine with Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, and Tommy Fleetwood.
But if McIlroy and Hovland continue to shine under pressure as they did on Saturday, they may not allow the pack to have much chance of closing the gap.
“There are a lot of things that can happen,” Hovland said. “In those circumstances and these pin positions, you can play really well and shoot equally, and then that brings in a lot of other players as well.”
The weather is expected to remain relatively mild on Sunday, with moderate winds and temperatures in the mid-70s. That could mean more lower grades which were the norm in St. Andrews in this 150th edition of the Open Championship.
Several players put on a great show on Saturday, including Shane Lowry, who featured in the Eagles back-to-back on the 9th and 10th; and Kevin Kisner, who barely made the cut but had the best run of the day: a 7 under 65 par that put him in the tie for 13th.
“It’s just a fun place to walk around and play golf, and when you get in the hits, it makes it a lot more fun,” Kissner said.
This seemed an apt summation of a good day at many golf courses, but the success on the old course still holds a special character even as the world’s best golfers make their way.
McIlroy is well aware of what Sunday’s win will mean to him and his fans – perhaps very knowledgeable.
“I love that I have had so much support,” he said. “But at the same time I need to kind of stay in my own little world tomorrow and play a good round of golf and hopefully that’s enough.”
It wasn’t enough to get rid of Hovland in the third round. Both started the day at the age of 10 and in the penultimate group, ahead of second-round leader Smith and first-round leader Young.
Hovland set a fast pace early on, making four straight birds, starting with a 38-foot-tall bird put on 3 and 42 feet by 4. But McIlroy made his own finches on Nos. 5, 6, and 9 in front of his eagle out of the sand on No. 5, 6, and 9. 10 and another bird on No. 15 that brought him back outright lead.
But he couldn’t hold it as Hovland outdid him at 17, putting him on a par as McIlroy had to accept a bogey.
At the age of 18, they finished the unforgettable tour as they had begun, tied up and spirits refreshed.
“We fed each other and got through the last few holes really well,” McIlroy said.
This was pure competition, but there was no pessimistic struggle. There were fist bumps, smiles, and plenty of chatter during most of the tour.
“I talked about a whole bunch of things,” McIlroy said. “I talked about shoes. Talk about what he’s done in the past two weeks. He returned to his homeland in Norway. He will return to Norway after that. I just kept it nice and loose.”
McIlroy may be nine years older, but he developed a good relationship with Hovland after playing (and losing) in the same Ryder Cup squad for Europe last year. But although they will get back together on Sunday, they are no longer teammates.
McIlroy attempts to end a major eight-year drought by winning the final open hall. Hovland is trying to become the first Norwegian man to win a major tournament.
“It’s pretty crazy where I grew up,” Hovland said. “I have to push myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to back out tomorrow.”