Rory McIlroy shares the lead with Viktor Hovland heading into the final round of the Open
Every now and then there are sporting moments that are so perfect that they seem to be guided by fate. A rare case where the collective longing is so ingrained that it forces itself to be fulfilled. When Rory McIlroy By the time he entered one of the cavernous bunkers guarding the tenth hole at St Andrews, he had outpaced his playing partner Victor Howland one shot at the top of the leaderboard. But when the Northern Irishman’s ball carried the steep ledge in front of the green and came to a halt just in time to reach the edge of the hole, the sense of doom felt almost irresistible. Of course, that would downplay reality, which required some golfing genius.
After eight years of devastating near misses and endless introspection, McIlroy will take part of the lead into the finals of The Open. There will still be 18 holes of relentless pressure, the vagaries of the weather and not least the threat from Hovland to negotiate on a Sunday that could cast out so many demons, but McIlroy could hardly have asked for better than a round of 66, only a single bogey at the road hole was enough. With the same calm conviction he’s displayed all week, the 33-year-old made amends immediately with one last birdie and the cheers that greeted him are now dimmed with excitement and anticipation.
Maintaining that same level of composure on Sunday will be a different task altogether and there are still plenty of names within reach if McIlroy and Hovland can’t avoid being swept up in the eye of the storm. Cameron Smith and Cameron Young were the last couple on Saturday and lacked the fireworks that propelled them into the competition. They could still grit their teeth and grind rounds of 72 and 71, respectively, to leave themselves four shots from the lead and a chance. World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler is a shot down and Dustin Johnson will have Tommy Fleetwood company on Sunday, with Matt Fitzpatrick adding to the England presence on the front page of the rankings.
The shine is magnified without end, but McIlroy still had to avoid getting lost in the spotlight of this third round. His hopes had been dashed after promising starts at all three previous majors this year, but he didn’t become overly aggressive or deviate from a measured game plan after an early series of pars saw others in the field skip.
The intricate nature of the Old Course often results in players overlapping or having to wait long stretches on the tee while their closest competitors putt onto adjacent greens. It was the cause of crippling delays during the six-hour three balls on Thursday and Friday, but it added to the allure and intimacy of Saturday’s competition. As McIlroy and Hovland paced to inspect the fifth green, they got to the top of the hill just in time to see Scheffler rattling in a 30-foot birdie putt. And at that point, it felt like American duo Scheffler and Johnson could reignite Ryder Cup’s macho dominance. Johnson, who led at halftime in 2015 only to shoot a pair of 75s, had dashed any notion of a replay with two birdies in his first three holes to close on Smith’s lead.
The leaderboard spun like the leading pack at a long-distance race, with runners craning their heads forward and smelling clean air, only to soon fall back into the pack. While Scheffler and Johnson waited at the sixth tee, it was their turn to watch as McIlroy rolled in his first birdie of the day, and when they didn’t see his next, it was made known by the tremendous roar that went up around the sixth green. While he may not have been the primary recipient of that affection, Hovland basked in the atmosphere that also enveloped his group, and four straight birdies gave the Norwegian the lead as he tacked at -14. McIlroy’s birdie on the ninth kept the margin just one. Smith, whose flawless putting had teetered wide in the heat of the last group, also used the mobile par 4 to stay within reach.
The spectators around the tenth would have been forgiven if they thought they weren’t seeing anything more extraordinary as Shane Lowry stepped in for a second consecutive Eagles early in the afternoon. But then McIlroy lit the fuse that was denoted in the Greenside bunker and changed the entire complexion of that tournament.
The eagle caused hysteria as the Northern Irishman took the lead and the force of that shot seemed to reverberate down the stretch, bogging the minds of his rivals. Scheffler swung his putter like it was studded with thorns, Johnson compounded the misery of his own missed tiddler by chipping into a bunker, and Smith hit a double bogey at 13 after trading clay for gorse. Only Hovland and Young seemed able to weather the storm as the wind picked up and billowed in McIlroy’s sails. A two-putt birdie on the par-5 14 got him clear, but his only error on the penultimate hole meant the lead had to be shared with Hovland at -16.
Whether it’s finally McIlroy’s time again or another portrait of agony unfolds, it’s guaranteed to be a final round worthy of this grand ol’ stage.