St. ANDREWS, Scotland — Standing in one of the Old Course’s 112 bunkers on Saturday, Rory McIlroy must have been right where he wanted to be: atop the British Open leaderboard.
His drive on the 10th hole caused trouble, but not deep trouble, stopping in the sand trap protecting the green.
McIlroy had room to swing freely, and his second shot flew over the lip of the bunker, tripled, and then dropped a few more feet into the eagle’s cup.
McIlroy’s 27-yard master put him one stroke ahead of Victor Hovland, his playing partner.
“It was a skill to get somewhere close,” McIlroy said. “But it was fate that he went into the hole. You need a bit of luck every now and then, especially in these big tournaments. And that was 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 the bonus Friday when he holed an eagle from 139 yards 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 enjoy the lead for long. He quickly pulled McIlroy back with a birdie on the 10th that put both at 15-under, and then they squared off in a back nine duel on one of golf’s most historic courses.
McIlroy, from Northern Ireland, was certainly the crowd favourite, but Hovland, a dynamic presence, did not shy away from the challenge. They finished their respective rounds of 66 and 16 under, leaving them four shots clear of American Cameron Young and Australia’s Cameron Smith, who both head into Sunday at 12 under. .
Of the top four men on the leaderboard, only McIlroy, 33, is already a major champion, but the last of his four victories came in 2014 when he won the British Open at Royal Liverpool.
Since then, he’s had plenty of frustrating weeks.
“You’re not given anything, and I’ve got to go and earn it, like I’ve earned everything in my career,” he said.
Other major champions are also in range. American Scotty Scheffler, who won the Masters in April and is ranked No. 1 in the world, is tied for 11th with Kim Si-woo of South Korea. Dustin Johnson, a two-time major winner from the United States who recently jumped into the breakaway LIV Golf Series, is alone at 10 under on Saturday after a moody 71.
Matt Fitzpatrick, the Englishman who won this year’s US Open, is at 9-under with 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott and Tommy Fleetwood.
But if McIlroy and Hovland continue to press as they did on Saturday, they may not give the team much of an opportunity to close the gap.
“A lot of things can happen,” Hovland said. “In those conditions and in those pin placements, you can play well and shoot at par, and then a lot of other guys bring it.
Sunday will continue to be relatively fair, with moderate winds and temperatures in the mid-70s. That could mean more of the low scores that have been the norm at St Andrews in this 150th edition of the Open.
Several players put on quite a performance on Saturday, including Shane Lowry, who made it 9 and 10 in a row for the Eagles; And Kevin Kisner, who barely missed a shot but had the best round of the day: a 7-under 65 that tied him for 13th.
“It’s just a fun place to walk and play golf, and when the putts go, it makes it even more fun,” Kisner said.
That seemed to sum up a good day at many golf courses, but success on the old course continues to hold special significance even as the world’s best golfers hit the course.
McIlroy is well aware of what Sunday’s victory meant to him and his community – perhaps too well.
“I love that I have so much support,” she said. “But at the same time I have to stay in my own little world tomorrow and play a good round of golf and hopefully that will be enough.”
It wasn’t quite enough to get rid of Holland in the third round. Both started the day on 10th and in the last group, ahead of second-round leader Smith and first-round leader Young.
Hovland set a blistering pace early, making four straight birdies, starting with a 38-foot birdie putt on 3 and a 42-foot birdie putt. From the sand on No. 10 and another birdie on No. 15 that gave him back the outright lead.
But he couldn’t hold on as Hovland bogeyed him at the 17th for par and McIlroy had to settle for a bogey.
At 18, they finished the memorable round as they began, tight and in good spirits.
“We were kind of feeding off each other and the last couple of holes we made good,” McIlroy said.
It was pure competition, but not a bitter encounter. Much of the round involved fist bumps and smiles.
“I talked about a lot of things,” McIlroy said. “I talked about shoes. He talked about what he had done in the last two weeks. He returned home to Norway. After that he returns to Norway. Just keep 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 in Europe last year. But while they will be back together on Sunday, they are no longer teammates.
McIlroy is looking to end an eight-year major drought with a win in his final Open. Hovland is trying to become the first Norwegian to win a major.
“It’s pretty crazy where I grew up,” Hovland said. “I have to hold back, but that doesn’t mean I won’t hold back tomorrow.”