ST ANDREWS, Scotland — Standing on one of the Old Course’s 112 bunkers on Saturday, Rory McIlroy was going to be exactly where he wanted to be: on the British Open leaderboard.
His driver on the 10th hole landed in trouble but not in deep trouble, coming to rest amid a sand trap protecting the front of the green.
McIlroy left room to swing free, and his second shot flew over the lip of the bunker, bounced three times, and then rolled a few more feet into the cup for eagle.
A 27-yard masterstroke put McIlroy one shot ahead of fellow player Victor Hovland.
“It was efficient to get it somewhere close,” McIlroy said. “But it was lucky it went into the pit. Every once in a while you need a bit of luck, especially in these big tournaments. That’s a nice bonus.”
It’s the kind of pleasant surprise that can make the difference between winning or losing a major championship, and Hovland got a bonus of his own on Friday when he holed out from 139 yards for eagle on the par-4 15th.
But Hovland, a 24-year-old Norwegian who excelled at Oklahoma State before turning pro in 2019, didn’t let McIlroy hold the lead for long. He reeled off McIlroy with a birdie on the 10th that put them both tied at 15-under, and then they dropped the back nine on major golf’s most historic course.
McIlroy, from Northern Ireland, was certainly the crowd favourite, but Hovland, a dynamic presence, did not shrink from the challenge. They finished with matching rounds of 66 and a share of the lead at 16-under par. Chase Pack American Cameron Young and Australian Cameron Smith are both 12-under heading into Sunday.
Of the top four on the leaderboard, only the 33-year-old McIlroy is already a major champion, but the most recent of his 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, like I’ve earned everything in my career, I’ve got to go out there and earn it,” he said.
Other major champions are also in range. Scotty Scheffler, American He won his master’s degree in April He is also ranked No. 1 in the world, tied with South Korea’s Kim Chi-woo at No. 11. Dustin Johnson, a recent two-time major winner from America Discontinued LIV Golf SeriesHe is alone at 10-under after a 71 on Saturday.
Matt Fitzpatrick, Englishman He won the US Open this year9 under with 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott and Tommy Fleetwood.
But if McIlroy and Hovland continue to shine under pressure as they did on Saturday, they won’t allow the Pack much of a chance to close the gap.
“A lot of things can happen,” Hovland said. “In these conditions and these pin placements, you can play well and shoot par, and then it brings a lot of guys in.”
Sunday’s weather is forecast to be relatively benign with moderate winds and temperatures in the mid-70s. This may indicate the low scores that have been the rule at St Andrews in the 150th edition of this Open Championship.
A number of players, including Shane Lowry, had very good performances on Saturday. And Kevin Kisner, who barely made the cut but had the best round of the day: a 7-under-par 65, tied him for 13th.
“It’s a fun place to stroll around and play golf, and when the putts go in, it’s even more fun,” Kisner said.
It seemed like the perfect summary of a good day at many golf courses, but a victory at the old course continues to have a certain cachet even as the world’s best golfers have their way.
McIlroy is well aware – perhaps too aware – of what winning on Sunday means to him and his people.
“I love that I’ve had so much support,” she said. “But at the same time I’ve got to be in my own little world tomorrow and play a good round of golf and that’s enough.”
It wasn’t enough to get rid of Hovland in the third round. Both started the day at 10 under and in the final group, ahead of second-round leader Smith and first-round leader Young.
Hovland set a fast pace by making four straight birdies, starting with a 38-foot birdie putt and a 42-foot birdie putt on the 4th. But McIlroy before his eagle no. He made birdies on the 5th, 6th and 9th of his own. No. Although from sand in 10, no. Another birdie at 15 gave him back the outright lead.
But Hovland outplayed him on the 17th, while McIlroy had to settle for a bogey.
At the age of 18, they embarked on a memorable tour, tied and finished with excitement.
“We fed off each other and led the last few holes really well,” McIlroy said.
It’s pure competition, but no hard-faced fighting. There were fist bumps and smiles and plenty of chatter all round.
“Talked about a whole bunch of stuff,” McIlroy said. “Talked about shoes. Talked about what he’s been up to for the last couple of weeks. He’s back in Norway. He’s going back to Norway after that. I put it nice and loose.
McIlroy may be nine years older, but he and Hovland have developed a good relationship after playing (and losing) on the same Ryder Cup team for Europe last year. But although they will be together again on Sunday, they are no longer teammates.
McIlroy is trying to end an eight-year drought by dominating the final Open field. Hovland is trying to become the first Norwegian man to win a major.
“It’s pretty crazy where I grew up,” Hovland said. “I have to pinch myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to back out tomorrow.”
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