GOLF

All eyes at St. Andrews are on Rory McIlroy and his Holy Grail moment at The Open

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Rory McIlroy has been chasing the holy grail of golf at St. Andrews for more than a decade. He lost his way in the wind at the Open here in 2010. His mission in 2015 failed before it started due to the ankle injury he suffered while playing football with friends. This time, his quest could have been lost in the sand or derailed between the rock and the anvil. But unlike previous attempts, this one will be planned.

Now, after 54 holes, McIlroy faces one of the biggest rounds of his life.

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But the focus for the next 24 hours is to make sure that even though he’s in a remarkable space in his life, nothing changes. His first concern after finishing on Saturday tied with Viktor Hovland in the lead? Find something to do on Sunday morning.

On Saturday, he woke up early to see his Irish rugby team claim a historic victory against New Zealand.

“I got a little emotional when Ireland won, actually,” he said. “It was an incredible achievement for them.”

He then took a nap, arrived at the course three hours before his starting time, played sports, had lunch. Then he came out and shot 6-under 66.

There’s something about this year as he remains firmly in the mix at St. Andrews, in the 150th playing the sport’s oldest major championship, at a time when those not at LIV Golf see McIlroy as the sport’s voice of reason.

We’ve been here before with McIlroy. Since his last major victory at the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, he has finished in the top five eight times. He himself referred this week to missed opportunities – like the Masters and the Open in 2018, and again last year at the US Open. He misses being the close man, and the key to change is staying true to his processes.

“It allows me to play better,” he said. “Going all the way back to Augusta in 2011, I got out of my process. I got out of what I did for three days and it was a tough lesson. It was a really tough pill to swallow.

“And I went to [the U.S. Open at] Congress, and that’s all I’ve been focusing on all week. I kind of called it my little cocoon, just trying to stay in my little cocoon all week. And that’s also what I tried to do this week.”

At St. Andrews, he kept his emotions in check as much as possible – aside from the odd punch and the awkward hug with his shopping cart. He took a moment on Saturday to stare out the windows of a nearby hotel where he knew his family would be watching.

“I try to acknowledge as much as I can, but I just try to stay in my process, stay in my own little bubble and just have to do this for one more day,” he said.

This “cocoon” is the protection of process, patience and pragmatism.

“I try to play with discipline,” he said. “I try to play the percentages.”

But don’t confuse pragmatism for a minute with lack of drama – the man was the draw on Saturday. Everywhere he went he had what looked like all of St. Andrews hanging on every one of his putts, chips or closed fists.

After being within 10 on 36 holes – 3 strokes off the lead – he planned to “minimize the danger” before Saturday. After coming out in 3-under 33, everything was fine. And then he approached the 10th. The hole is aptly named after Bobby Jones. He was the man who planted the seed of St. Andrews’ prominence in the world of golf, saying that if a player wanted true fulfillment they had to win the Open here – which led to the comment from the McIlroy’s “holy grail” earlier in the week. But as he threw a 334-yard drive down the fairway, he fell right into the Old Course’s trap.

Of the 112 bunkers here, the one on the 10th green is less notorious, but when you watch a player fly around the course, you fear the slightest mistake will lead to a nose dive. But a patient McIlroy twice backed off as he navigated the claustrophobia of the course with Cameron Young and Cameron Smith both starting from close ninth. On the third approach and the third time the hubbub of the crowd died down, McIlroy blasted to the front of the green and he rolled into the hole for an eagle, unleashing a roar to rival all we’ve got heard this week.

It was box office time, but in that round were equally important shots, ones that may not make a highlight but are the building blocks of major fillers. McIlroy said after his first round that he was trying to make the “fiddly” side of the sport his “fort” this week – and that he had to produce all sorts of golf twists and nuances to keep this round going in the right direction. direction.

The first case was on the 11th with his tricky 10-foot putt to save par, which also received a punch. There was 15, where his training found the worst of the rough. Somehow his approach found the green and his 49-foot putt left him 5 feet for par.

He managed to avoid the infamous Road Hole bunker on the 17th, but found himself between a rock and a hard place as his second shot ended about a foot from the wall to the right of the green. He escaped with a bogey, although it could have been much worse and the bump on his lap much bigger.

McIlroy came to St. Andrews as a favorite for the Claret Jug, having won two PGA titles this year, at the CJ Cup and the Canadian Open. But his title chances were one of many stories here, with few threats bigger than Tiger Woods. Woods and McIlroy became close friends. Before arriving at St. Andrews, the two played at Ballybunion in Ireland. McIlroy said earlier in the week he expected Woods to play the full four days here. Instead, as McIlroy waited for the first hole as part of the 45th group on Friday, he saw the 19th group come up on the 18th. Justin Thomas, in the group behind McIlroy waiting to leave, was also there. Thomas is another great friend of Woods. The old master managed to hold him down until he turned around and saw his two buddies tilting their caps in his direction.

This moment could rise to prominence over the next few years, becoming this fortuitous example where two careers intersect – one transferring the responsibility of pushing the sport forward to the other. But McIlroy only let the emotion of that moment run through him for a millisecond.

“It was cool to be on that fairway when it was happening,” he said. “But I was concentrating on my start to the inning.”

It was back to work to accomplish.

Sunday offers him the chance to end the eight-year wait for another Major McIlroy. But he’s not relying on experience where he’s been wrong before when he’s been in the mix; instead, he golfs until he runs out of holes. There are positive omens for McIlroy. It is the sixth time he has held the lead after 54 holes in a major. Of the previous five instances, he won four. And now is the first time he’s trailed in a major tournament after 54 holes since 2014 and that triumph at Valhalla.

“I’m not going to take anything for granted,” he said. “I don’t feel like I can fall back into any experience.

“Just like being here before and I’ve done that. But nothing’s given to you and I have to go out there and earn it like I’ve earned everything else in my career.”

It has been 32 years since the Open had a British winner at St. Andrews when Nick Faldo won in 1990. Woods made his Open debut here five years after Faldo’s victory and won in 2000 and 2005. That year’s championship offered McIlroy a career shot. .

But above all, it would grant peace to McIlroy.

As he walked across the Swilcan Bridge on Saturday, he did not remove his cap. It was not time to party. He doesn’t have a hand on the Claret Jug yet, let alone two. Until he’s there in the middle of Sunday 18 lifting his holy grail, he’ll think of nothing but the next move and staying in his cocoon.

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