Street. Andrews, Scotland – Cheers from every corner of the old stadium that belonged to Tiger Woods for two days at St. Andrews turned to Rory McIlroy at The Open, and he certainly did his part to give them what he came to see on Saturday.
McIlroy hacked through an eagle’s bunker shot on the 10th hole which he described as part skill and part luck, but it was pure magic. He demonstrated the discipline of knowing when to shoot away from the flag, and to take a ghost when he was stuck between a wall and a road behind the seventeenth green.
McIlroy now shares the stage at home golf with Viktor Hovland, a budding Norwegian star who was so good at making birds and avoiding the blunders that cost many other potential contenders.
Both made a birdie on the last slot for a 6-under 66. No one else was closer than four shots. They have the same result at 16 under 200, although the support is one-sided.
“They’re chanting his name out there,” said Masters champion Scotty Scheffler. “I think he’s definitely a fan favorite.” “How can you not root for Rory?”
McIlroy is one round away from ending eight long years without a major. He wants to stay in his world without ignoring the support pouring down on him.
“I think he appreciates the moment as well and appreciates the fact that it’s incredibly great to have a chance to win the St Andrews Open,” McIlroy said. “That’s what dreams are made of. I’ll try to make a dream come true tomorrow.”
Hovland, who has already racked up six world wins in the four years since leaving Oklahoma State as an American Amateur Champion, can appreciate McIlroy’s support and all he has done. He played flawlessly and looked as if he had up to the task.
“I’m going to take on one of the best players in the world, and I’m definitely not going back, because it definitely isn’t,” Hovland said.
It wasn’t a two-man race, even if it felt that way as the old pitch emptied out and the bagpipes started rolling at the end of the day.
Cameron Smith, who started with two shots, took a double bogey on the 13th hole when he tried to play a daring with his feet in the holeshot. Cameron Young went over the 16th green and then fell back on the other side for a double bogey on the 16th hole.
They were four bullets behind, still in the match. Twice Main Champion Dustin Johnson, best candidate from the Saudi-funded LIV Golf League to claim this major, was positioned across the green and into the lair of one of the three bogeys on the back nine. Six bullets fell behind him.
McIlroy and Hovland had no such problems.
Hovland dug a pair of 40 feet on his way to four straight birds in the front nine to grab the lead. McIlroy finally caught him coming out of a bowl bunker 80 feet away in search of an eagle on the tenth hole, a roar that could be heard all the way back at the Royal & Ancient clubhouse.
McIlroy just a day earlier had delivered his hat to Woods as he started his second run and Woods was on his way to losing the cut, and crossed the Suilcan Bridge for what would have been the last time. The R&A set their tee times this way until they passed each other.
Woods stands alone in commanding the sport, even though McIlroy is the most famous worldwide, and it looks like it is – at the first starting point when McIlroy was introduced, per bird, and when he first took the lead with a birdie on the 14th.
“I love that I have a lot of support,” McIlroy said. “But at the same time, I need to stay in my own little world and try to play a good round of golf. I hope that’s enough.”
His only mistake was to get out of the rough left and over the seventeenth green, across the road and near the stone wall. He played safe ground on the green nets and two stealth hits.
Hovland, devoid of stealth on the Tour, showed some of his magic on the 17th by putting off the dirt track close to the road, up the hill to about 5 feet to get on par.
“I’ve never been in a bigger position in my career,” Hovland said. He responded to the task, and the famous Norwegian also saw – and heard – what he would face on Sunday.
“I get a couple in there,” he said of the heavily slanted cheers toward McIlroy. “Maybe I’m underdog, but I don’t mind it at all. I hope we can push ourselves tomorrow.”
Smith missed a short birdie chance on the 18th and had a 73. His biggest mistake was not getting the ball back into play on day 13, instead trying to push the ball and getting into tricky spots. He also hit three times from 30 feet to start his run and only made two flies.
Young, the PGA Tour rookie who finished one shot from a PGA Championship playoff two months ago, has a 71.
Schaeffler was stalking past 69. He missed a 10-foot jumper on the 16th and then put three times into the 17th for a bogey. Schaeffler, who finished with one shot at the US Open, was 69 and was five years behind alongside Se-Woo Kim (67).
Johnson also within three shots up a bogey on day 13 and another on 5 on 14, as his tall eagle walked up a hill across the green and into a fortified bowl. Instead of sparrows, he had to scramble for a ghost. He dropped two more bullets coming in for the 71 and was six behind.
The last time McIlroy won a major was in 2014 at the PGA Championship in Valhalla. He loves nothing more than to win on the golf course, in the old course where Jack Nicklaus once said a player’s career would not be complete without winning a claret pitcher at St. Andrews.
“Every part of my game has felt really good this week,” McIlroy said. “I just need to carry on with it for another day.”