Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland gave such an impressive demonstration of how to play the Old Course when it’s hard and fast, it’s only right that they get a chance to do it in the final group in the final round of the 150th Open on Sunday to do again.
Both fired fabulous rounds of 66 to set themselves apart from the field and secured the prospect of a duel for the ages at a price so valuable McIlroy calls it the sport’s Holy Grail.
On the one hand there is the Northern Irishman, who has not won a major in eight years but has obviously rediscovered his mojo. On the other hand, the amazing 24-year-old who will one day become the first Norwegian to win a Major – and it could very well be this one.
Rory McIlroy (left) and Viktor Hovland (right) will face off on Sunday to win the Open
McIlroy and Hovland put on a show on Saturday as they pulled away from the nearest challengers
The pair started the third round three strokes behind the lead but played so well they are now four strokes ahead of the two Camerons, Smith and Young, who found playing in the last group a difficult experience, shooting 73 and 71, respectively .
Masters champion and world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler shot 69 to go five shots down alongside Korea’s Si Woo Kim. US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick and Tommy Fleetwood have had good days, but are certainly too far behind, seven strokes behind.
The bunker just before the 10th green on the Old Course isn’t one of those household names in the golfing world, but McIlroy could change all that.
If he keeps winning, they’ll surely have to call it something to commemorate the moment when fate and the sands of time aligned for him again.
McIlroy had the support of the crowd and they wanted him on the St Andrews course
Going into the bunkers here is meant to be the killing blow to a player’s hopes. McIlroy’s stroke of genius – ironically the first bunker he’s been in all week – had the opposite effect. It instilled a rabid home crowd with the belief that the agonizing wait for him to win his fifth Major could finally be over.
Bunker shots from about 40 yards are generally considered the most difficult of the game, and for this one McIlroy had to land the ball on a postage stamp-sized square to get the ball close. He did just that as the ball landed softly and rolled into the hole.
R&A built new grandstands on the loop at the other end of the course this year to create atmosphere and at that moment they must have been so glad they did.
McIlroy’s marvel certainly generated the loudest noise to be heard on a major golf course in many years.
In fact, you might have to go all the way back to Seve Ballesteros’ victory in 1984 to find the last time a crowd fought so hard for a win here. It comes with as many disadvantages as advantages, of course, but to this point the 33-year-old has ably ridden the incredible wave of emotion to lead a major with a round remaining for the first time since his last win, at the USPGA Championship 2014 in Valhalla.
It’s fitting that the two will do it all again on Sunday for the finals of the 150th Open
This was McIlroy’s seventh round of the Open at this course and the sixth time he has surpassed 70. It’s the stage where so many of the game’s greats left their mark, and now he has an opportunity to join them and cement his own legacy.
Of course it won’t be easy. Not with a golfer as accomplished as Hovland, matching him step by step and shot by shot.
“I know he’ll have all the support and I’m the underdog but I’m really looking forward to it,” said Hovland. “It’s going to be something special.”
It was an enthralling match day where the best players in the world were encouraged to show what they’ve got. There were at least four par fours that were mobile and four more that allowed players to hit their tee shots within throwing distance of the green. Only a warm breeze blew for protection.
Between them and a low score stood the pitfalls of the Old Course, the fiery fairways, the size of the occasion and a juicy pin placement or two. American Kevin Kisner underscored the possibilities with a 65, as did Shane Lowry with back-to-back Eagles in ninth and tenth place. Fleetwood scored a 66.
Among the leaders, it was Hovland who got out of the gate the quickest. That always looked like a good course to him, especially in this polished state because hardly a chip is required, the weakest part of the Norwegian’s game. From the third he scored four birdies in a row.
Huge crowds of spectators created a brilliant atmosphere and a duel for eternity is scheduled for Sunday
McIlroy had his own chances but had to be patient before his first win came with a two-putt birdie on the par five. Another two-putt birdie followed on the ninth before the moment on the tenth that took this Open to a whole different level. Even Scheffler, playing the adjacent 11th, grinned. It really was a magical moment.
McIlroy and Hovland skillfully negotiated the treacherous holes that followed while other competitors went insane. Only Australia’s Smith will know what he was doing as he tried to hit a long iron on the 13th while standing in a bunker with the ball well under his feet. In such situations, his punishment is to be taken and the Old Course gave him quite a beating for his daring as he pulled off an ugly double bogey.
Dustin Johnson was another, losing ground with moments of madness, bogeying the 13th and then taking four from the back of the 14th to drop another punch.
McIlroy showed what it takes when he drove through the green on the scary 17th and ran close to the wall that runs behind the road that gives the hole its name. He took his medicine with a bogeyman, the only blemish he or Hovland had suffered all day.
Both shagged on the 18th to create the perfect scenario for the final round and a duel too close to announce.