They stood by a clock on the 12th tee while waiting for the group ahead of them to clear the green. Viktor Hovland leaned back with his arms crossed Rory McIlroy stood straighter, a smile on his face.
The clock said it was six twenty-seven, but it was midnight for golfing, and even in St Andrews, amidst so much beauty and history, everyone knows it.
McIlroy and Hovland were locked in a titanic battle at the top of the leaderboard all afternoon and when the lead switched between them and Hovland leaped forward with brilliant putting and McIlroy brought him back by scoring on 10 , it felt like this Competition, pure and relentless, would be sport at its finest.
Rory McIlroy (left) and Viktor Hovland (right) lead the field ahead of Sunday’s final day
But every tournament in golf — especially every major — is riddled with a deep fear that the sport isn’t going to be around much longer and we’re going to end something.
It’s being torn apart by the Saudi-backed LIV series and their lure of some of the world’s best players with huge sign-up fees and guaranteed prize pools. The crisis is already here and it’s getting worse.
There are rumors that LIV will announce more big-name recruits to its ranks next week and uncertainty is everywhere. What if whoever wins The Open on Sunday is exposed as one of the next secessionists?
Imagine the shot that would hit the golf establishment. What if the next announcement deals another blow to the Ryder Cup? LIV comes wave after wave. How much more can golf take? Are we about to enter an Asterisk era in golf, when many of the world’s best players will be banned from playing majors due to their loyalty to LIV?
The Northern Irishman has relentlessly challenged the controversial Saudi Arabia-backed LIV tour
Are we about to enter an era where the majors are devalued and scales of size are diluted and the only numbers that matter are how much you paid to sell your soul?
With that in mind, every major now feels like a battle for the soul of golf, a battle in the garden of good and evil in sport. And with that in mind, it feels like golf never needed McIlroy to break its eight-year major drought more desperately than this weekend at the Home of Golf amid all the celebrations surrounding that 150th Open championship.
McIlroy has become more and more a representative of the sport in recent months. He has spoken passionately about the importance of his story and how golfers need to be part of that story in order for their careers to have meaning beyond money.
He asked how much money golfers need to be happy when they are already rich beyond their dreams.
And when you get a day like Saturday, when the sun shines on the waters of the Eden Estuary and the wide strip of West Sands Beach stretches into the distance and McIlroy and Hovland blow after blow in their quest for the Claret Jug and a few others swap From the world’s greatest golfers behind them, it seems fitting to ask why you want to ruin this with greed.
And so the huge galleries that followed McIlroy around the Old Course roared at him and almost ripped the sky apart as that bunker shot ricocheted off on the 10th and rolled up the hill and fell into the hole, catapulting McIlroy to the lead.
A win at Sunday’s 150th Open would break McIlroy’s eight-year drought without a major
Phil Mickelson, who missed the cut, has emerged as the face of the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV tour
Even Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, another diamond of the golf establishment, grinned as he stood on the 11th tee.
At the start of the round, R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers had joined the crowd and followed the Northern Irishman and Norwegian down the pitch, another symbol of McIlroy’s importance to the establishment.
Golf can’t count on Tiger Woods, who missed the cut this week, to remain his poster boy forever, and as he fades from prominence and pretenders like Brooks Koepka take the LIV money, it’s become apparent that McIlroy now the jewel in the crown is the gulf.
It’s not quite as far as McIlroy standing alone on the barricades, but he sees other top-flight golfers being picked off almost every week.
He is rumored to have turned down a staggering sum of money to join the LIV series, just like Woods. And while the two main tours have McIlroy, they still have a prestige and reputation that comers at LIV can’t match.
As McIlroy later sat at the top of the leaderboard in the third round, having taken a birdie lead in the 14th, there was some relief as LIV’s top player, Dustin Johnson, slipped off the top to the back nine.
McIlroy asked how much money golfers need to be happy as several flock to the LIV tour
He had been one shot from McIlroy earlier in the afternoon but by the time he finished his round he was six shots behind him. That will relieve the R&A. The prospect of a LIV figurehead winning golf’s most famous tournament at a time when the sport’s competition is raging would be too much for some at the sport’s vanguard to bear.
LIV needs every public relations win it can muster, and one of its players winning a major would be a huge boost. Instead, after firing a shot on the 17th, it was McIlroy who marched up the 18th just after 8pm and shared the lead with Hovland.
It was McIlroy who carried the torch for the game and its history, traditions and credibility as he came within 18 holes of the most important win of his career and one of the defining moments in the history of the sport.
McIlroy and Hovland will be the last pairing to go out on Sunday to continue their duel one more round. McIlroy is cast as the defender of the faith, the man golf must win, the man who has become the sport’s conscience and its most popular player.
LIV believes it can buy anything and everything, but after the drama that unfolded in St Andrews on Saturday, we know it can’t buy that.