The Open: Rory McIlroy & Viktor Hovland duel at Sun in St Andrews
|Venue: St Andrews, Scotland Events: 14-17 July|
|Cover: BBC TV, radio and online, on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Sounds, BBC Sport website and the BBC Sport Mobile App. Full coverage details.|
It would take a lot to anger Viktor Hovland, Zen warrior and co-leader of the Open Championship.
A ball in a bunker? He’d just shrug, you guess. One buried in a bush? Put the house on the same magnanimous response from the two Norwegians.
If you’re looking for fear in St Andrews, you’ve come to the wrong place. Aside from a softly whispered profanity on the back nine when a birdie putt wouldn’t go away, Hovland was composure personified.
On day three of a tournament scarred by the bitterness and resentment of LIV history, it was fitting that Hovland, with his infectious smile and cheerful disposition, was one of the key players in turning the dispute in Fife into something akin to duel in the sun.
From old Tom Morris’s twitching whiskers earlier in the week as talk of Saudi money loomed as big on the horizon as beautiful West Sands, to Hovland seeking his first major title and with Rory McIlroy in the hunt for one first head-to-head race in eight years.
It was relentless and great, right down to the last hole with two birdies that tied them to 16 under.
It’s likely – almost a racing certainty – that The Open will be won by a win of 20, 21, 22 under par. Traditionalists might be concerned about this. You shouldn’t be. This is supposed to be the entertainment business and the Old Course gave up so much of it this week.
Let’s not talk about the advancement of technique and the distance of the ball and whether the course is suitable for the modern game – US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick replied “not really” when asked exactly about it after his round.
Instead, let’s revel in the quality of everything. Hovland and McIlroy will go out in the last group on Sunday and they have a supporting cast that is pretty much setting things up for the finale. Celebrating the championship’s 150th anniversary, there’s every chance of the classic final day it deserves.
“This is McIlroy’s best chance to be a star again”
McIlroy is the man of the Renaissance, without a major in the last 29 of these things and no doubt wounded by the sight of an old guard (Zach Johnson, Jimmy Walker, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson) and an intermediate guard (Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia) and one Legion of young blasters who have won one since his last win.
23 different players have won one of golf’s four major trophies since McIlroy experienced the sensation. Nineteen of them were first-time Major winners. McIlroy has had his nose pressed against the glass for far too long these Sundays. This is his best chance to break down the door and be the star again.
Hovland is right there with him, a mega-talented but unfulfilled pusher. He’s only 24, but he feels he should be further along in his career than he is.
He would be if he hadn’t made a mistake in his game. “I fail at chipping,” he smiled a few years ago – after winning a tournament. There was a brief period around May of this year when Hovland was statistically the worst player on the greens on the entire PGA Tour.
The last time we saw him at a major was at Brookline last month. He ran well at the US Open, two under his 27 holes and in seventh place. promising. Then the demons descended. His next 11 holes were bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, par, bogey, par, bogey, bogey. From a position to challenge at two under, he crossed over to the airport at seven.
But he’s back. What serenity he showed out there. When McIlroy holed out of a bunker for eagle on 10, Hovland rolled in a tricky putt for birdie. As his approach to the road hole went around the back of the green, he putt up the bank to give himself an easy putt for par.
Galleries were massive on the Northern Irish side – they’d carry him across any fairway in a palanquin if they could – but Hovland was popular out there too. How could he not be. He’s one of the classiest, most smiling, most unspoiled guys in golf.
“Supporting Actors Add to the Heady Feeling”
Four shots back, Cameron Young is in the bolter category, a rookie American whose father is a pro at New York’s Sleepy Hollow, not a description that could be applied to Saturday’s Old Course.
The conventions of golf are being torn apart before our eyes. For years it was said that a player with no experience could not win any of these prizes, let alone an Open with all its crazy quirks. Then comes Collin Morikawa, fearless and brilliant, and does just that.
As a 13-year-old on a family holiday in Fife, Young played the Old Course. He asked permission to play the back sticks. Once the smelling salts took hold, members sauntered out to see this precocious child. You’re still looking.
Young had a painful time on Saturday at 16 – clinching double – but he’s still alive and needs to be respected.
Cam Smith is the hero of the mullet set. He’s also four strokes behind and with the perfect weather forecast for Sunday that’s a lot of ground to make up against the front two. One of them might be catchable. Both? Not impossible, but he has to tear it up.
That gives the final round such an exhilarating feeling. For the players hiding behind the two main players, the approach will be an all-out attack.
Scottie Scheffler, world number one, is in the slipstream of the leaders. Looking over their shoulders, the last man they want to see there is Scheffler, winner of the Masters and three other events this year, but he’s five shots away, a gap they take comfort in.
Si Woo Kim from South Korea is also there. In his last five majors he’s missed a cut, tied 40th, tied 39th, tied 60th and cut again, but that’s the essence of open golf. There is always someone who surprises you. Many times, more than once.
And then there’s what makes a bogeyman in modern golf, a LIV man who made it to 12-under at one point on his round before finishing 10-under.
As Dustin Johnson walked into the competition, you were reminded of the question posed to LIV’s Ian Poulter if he thought Old Tom Morris was turning in his grave with everything that’s been going on lately. Poulter looked amused, which was fair enough. The R&A will be relieved that Johnson didn’t run and ended up higher up the board, which is fair enough.
It’s hard to see him win and so the spectacle of LIV licking his lips at having the champion golfer of the year in their ranks has receded. Not quite, but enough to calm the establishment’s pounding heart.
A shootout erupts in the heat of St Andrews on Sunday. It could be one of the big ones.