ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Cheers from all corners of the Old Course that belonged to Tiger Woods for two days at St. Andrews passed to Rory McIlroy at The Open, and he certainly did his part to give them what came to be seen on Saturday .
McIlroy hit a bunker shot for the Eagle on the 10th hole which he described as part skill and part luck, but it was pure magic. He showed discipline in knowing when to aim away from the flag, and bogey when he was stuck between a wall and a road behind the 17th green.
McIlroy now shares the golf home stage with Viktor Hovland, the emerging Norwegian star who was equally good at birdying and avoiding the blunders that cost so many other potential suitors.
Both birdied the last hole for a 6-under 66. No one else was within four shots. They have the same score at 16-under 200, although the support is one-sided.
“They’re chanting his name there. I think he’s definitely a crowd favorite,” Masters champion Scottie Scheffler said. “How can you not support Rory?” »
McIlroy is one turn away from ending eight long years without a major. He wants to stay in his world without ignoring the support that rains down on him.
“I think it’s also appreciating the moment and appreciating that it’s incredibly cool to have a chance to win the Open at St Andrews,” McIlroy said. “That’s what dreams are made of. And I’m going to try to fulfill a dream tomorrow.”
Hovland, already with six World Cup wins in his four years since leaving Oklahoma State as the U.S. Amateur Champion, could appreciate McIlroy’s support and all he has done. He played error free and looked ready for the task.
“I’m going to face one of the best players in the world and I’m definitely not going to hold back because that’s definitely not the case,” Hovland said.
It wasn’t a two-man race, although it was when the Old Course emptied out and the bagpipes started twirling late in the day.
Cameron Smith, who started with a two-stroke lead, took a double bogey on the 13th hole when he attempted a bold play with his feet in a bunker. Cameron Young crossed the 16th green, then came back down the other side for a double bogey on the 16th hole.
They were four shots down, still in the game. Two-time Major champion Dustin Johnson, the Saudi-funded LIV golf league’s top contender to win this major, crossed the green and into a bunker for one of three back nine bogeys. He was six strokes behind.
McIlroy and Hovland didn’t have that kind of problem.
Hovland landed a pair of 40-foot putts on his way to four consecutive front-nine birdies to take the lead. McIlroy finally caught it coming out of a bunker about 80ft for the eagle on the 10th hole, unleashing a roar that could be heard all the way back to the Royal & Ancient clubhouse.
McIlroy only a day earlier tipped his cap at Woods as he entered his second round and Woods was close to missing the cut, crossing the Swilcan Bridge for what might have been the last time. The R&A set the start times this way so that they intersect.
Woods is the only one to run the sport, despite McIlroy being the most popular in the world, and it looked like this – on the first tee when McIlroy was introduced, for every birdie, and when he first took the lead with a birdie on the 14th.
“I love having so much support,” McIlroy said. “But at the same time, I have to stay in my little world and try to play a good game of golf. Hopefully that’s enough.”
His only mistake was coming off the rough left and over the 17th green, across the road and near the rock wall. He played a safe pitch to the green and two putts for bogey.
Hovland, with no bogey for the lap, showed his own magic on the 17th by putting the dirt road just off the road, up the hill about 5ft for a par.
“I’ve never been in such an important position in my career,” Hovland said. He has proven himself up to the task, and the popular Norwegian has also seen – and heard – what he will face on Sunday.
“I put a few in there,” he said of the cheers directed so heavily at McIlroy. “I’m probably an underdog, but that doesn’t bother me at all. Hopefully we can overtake each other tomorrow.”
Smith missed a narrow birdie chance on the 18th and shot a 73. His biggest mistake was not putting the ball back in play on the 13th, instead trying to get the ball forward and getting into tight spots. He also threw three 30-foot putts to start his round and only managed two birdies.
Young, the PGA Tour rookie who completed a playoff shot at the PGA Championship two months ago, had a 71.
Scheffler was hiding after a 69. He missed a 10-foot birdie chance on the 16th, then put three putts on the 17th for a bogey. Scheffler, who finished one shot behind at the US Open, had a 69 and was five behind with Si Woo Kim (67).
Johnson was also under three hits until a bogey on the par-5 13th and another on the 14th, where his long eagle putt raced up a hill, across the green and into a pot bunker. Instead of a birdie, he had to rush for a bogey. He dropped two more shots for a 71 and was six behind.
McIlroy last won a major in 2014 at the PGA Championship at Valhalla. He would love nothing more than to win at the birthplace of golf, on the Old Course where Jack Nicklaus once said that a player’s career wouldn’t be complete without winning a claret at St. Andrews.
“Every part of my game has gone well this week,” McIlroy said. “I just need to carry on for one more day.”