ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Cheers from every corner of the Old Course that belonged to Tiger Woods for two days at St. Andrews changed to Rory McIlroy at the British Open, and he certainly did his part to give the fans what they came for. to see on Saturday.
McIlroy sank an eagle bunker shot on the 10th hole that he described as part skill, part luck, but it was pure magic. He showed the discipline to know when to aim away from the pin and bogey when he was trapped between a wall and a path behind the 17th green.
McIlroy now shares the stage in the birthplace of golf with Viktor Hovland, the rising Norwegian star who was just as good at making birdies and avoiding the blunders that cost so many other would-be contenders.
Both birdied the final hole for a 66 under par. No one else came closer than four strokes. They have the same score at 16-under 200, although the support is one-sided.
“They are chanting his name out there. I think he’s definitely a crowd favorite,” Masters champion Scottie Scheffler said. “How not to support Rory?”
McIlroy is one round away from finishing eight long years without a race. She wants to stay in his world without ignoring the support that rains down on him.
“I think it’s also appreciating the moment and appreciating the fact that it’s incredibly cool to have a chance to win the Open at St Andrews,” McIlroy said. “It’s what dreams are made of. And I’m going to try to make a dream come true tomorrow.”
Hovland, with six worldwide wins in his four years since leaving Oklahoma State as US amateur champion, could appreciate supporting McIlroy and all he has done. He played flawlessly and sounded like he was up to the task.
“I’m going to face one of the best players in the world and I’m certainly not going to hold back, because I certainly won’t,” Hovland said.
It was not a two-man race, even if it felt that way when the Old Course emptied and the bagpipes began to play at the end of the day.
Cameron Smith, who started with a two-shot lead, double bogeyed on the 13th hole when he attempted a bold play with his feet into a bunker. Cameron Young went over the 16th green and then back down the other side for a double bogey on the 16th hole.
They were four shots behind, still in the game. Two-time major champion Dustin Johnson, the Saudi-funded LIV Golf League’s top contender to claim this major, crossed the green and into a bunker for one of three bogeys on the back nine. He fell six shots back.
McIlroy and Hovland didn’t have that problem.
Hovland holed a pair of 40-foot putts on his way to four straight birdies on the first nine to take the lead. McIlroy finally caught him holed out from a bunker about 80 feet away for the eagle on the 10th hole, prompting a roar that could be heard from the Royal & Ancient clubhouse.
McIlroy just a day earlier tipped his cap to Woods as his second round began and Woods was on his way to miss the cut, crossing the Swilcan Bridge for what could have been the last time. The R&A set the tee times that way so they would pass each other.
Woods is the only one running the sport, even though McIlroy is the most popular in the whole world, and that’s what it sounded like: on the first tee when McIlroy was introduced, for every birdie, and when he first took the lead with a birdie on the 14th. . .
“I love that I have so much support,” McIlroy said. “But at the same time, I need to stay in my own little world and try to play a good round of golf. Hopefully that’s enough.”
His only mistake was getting out of the left rough and past the 17th green, across the road and near the stone wall. He made a sure shot to the green and two bogey putts.
Hovland, bogey-free for the round, showed his own magic on the 17th by coming off the dirt road just short of the highway, going up the hill about 5 feet for par.
“I’ve never been to a bigger venue in my career,” Hovland said. He seemed up to the task, and the popular Norwegian also saw – and heard – what he’s up against on Sunday.
“I’ve got a couple there,” he said over applause so heavily tilted toward McIlroy. “I’m probably an underdog, but that doesn’t matter to me at all. Hopefully, we can push ourselves tomorrow.”
Smith missed a small birdie chance on the 18th and had a 73. His biggest mistake was not putting the ball back in play on the 13th, instead trying to advance the ball and get into tough spots. He also made three putts from 30 feet to start his round and made just two birdies.
Young, the PGA Tour rookie who finished within a shot of a PGA Championship playoff two months ago, had a 71.
Scheffler was on the prowl after a 69. He missed a 10-foot birdie shot on the 16th and then made three puts on the 17th for a bogey. Scheffler, who finished a shot behind at the US Open, had a 69 and was five behind along with Si Woo Kim (67).
Johnson was also three shots away until bogeyed on the 13th and another on the par-5 14th, where his long putt for eagle went up a hill, across the green and into a bunker. Instead of birdie, he had to fight for bogey. He dropped two more shots for a 71 and was six behind.
McIlroy last won a major in 2014 at the PGA Championship in Valhalla. He would like nothing more than to win at the home of golf, at the Old Course, where Jack Nicklaus once said that a golfer’s career would not be complete without winning a pitcher of claret at St. Andrews.
“Every part of my game has felt good this week,” McIlroy said. “I just need to keep it up for one more day.”