Golf is not just about numbers, although it would be meaningless without them. What excites players and spectators alike is the occasional magic trick, something memorable to bring delight and joy to all who love the game – even the LIV renegades lurking further down the table.
Such a moment arrived for Rory McIlroy and the rest of us on the 10th, the 386-yard par four named after a magician of long ago, the triple Open champion, Bobby Jones, who mastered this course twice, in 1926 and 1927.
A classically giant McIlroy drive flew like a bird, headed for the heart of the green, until the ball rolled agonisingly into the greenside bunker. But the Irishman is the master of grand theatre and, in front of the packed stands assembled around the St Andrews Loop to view the doings on three holes at the turn, he exploded out as only he can. The ball arrowed skyward, dropped at precisely the right point in its flight and, after a 27-yard journey, landed ever so softly in the hole for an eagle – and the shot of the championship.
Fans had been waiting patiently for hours for something like this and the roar filled the air in all directions. McIlroy was in front of the field, alongside his playing partner, Viktor Hovland, who was playing with similar zest.
There were fears – in the inner sanctum of the R&A rather than the locker room – that someone would overpower this venerated course at the weekend. McIlroy threatened to do just that, but still gave it a damn good shake with five birdies and an eagle, leavened by a late bogey, that lifted him into a share of the lead going into the closing day.
The choice at and near the top of the leaderboard at the start of the third day was to stick or twist, and it was heartening to see McIlroy and Hovland, the penultimate pairing, gamble from the first tee.
The 398-yard Cartgate (Out) beckons golfers like a siren in a gentle breeze, and it was the smiling young man from Oslo who took it on and profited, as he did over the treacherous 480 yards of the 4th.
The Irishman birdied the first of the two par fives to sit two behind his travelling companion, who also reduced his tally to stretch his advantage to three over the overnight leader, Cameron Smith.
McIlroy opened his shoulders to shrink the 414 yards on 6 to manageable proportions, matching the Norwegian’s birdie as they went shot for shot in fearful symmetry. An hour and 20 minutes into their round, and Hovland commanded the heights, with McIlroy snapping at his heels.
On the tricky 7th, Hovland hit it too well and found the fairway bunker, which would stop his run of birdies at four, while McIlroy dialled down his tee-shot with a well-placed iron off the tee but he could not cash in. They ground out pars on the first of the two short holes, the 8th, where cross-traffic slowed their progress for a few minutes, Hovland needing a monster second to get close to the hole, McIlroy settling a little more easily.
Coming to the turn, they knew they needed a burst to stretch the small gap on the chasing field – and McIlroy produced a monster drive to get on the 9th green 352 yards away. Hovland slipped up for the first time, pushing a long eagle putt wide then botching the birdie attempt, while McIlroy stayed cool for a welcome birdie as they headed for home, just a shot behind the Norwegian.
Then came that eagle, only the second of the tournament, after Shane Lowry’s chip in there earlier in the day. Hovland, who had made what appeared to be safe and more efficient use of the breeze, settled for birdie, to now sit alongside McIlroy in the lead, which was growing steadily as the evening sun weakened.
They had the benefit of seeing their prey in front of them, bar the pursuers who had started after them, the Camerons: Young and Smith. The Australian had strung together seven pars and a birdie after his opening bogey, but took his time getting out of second gear. He’d started the day two clear; now he was two behind, along with Young, who birdied the 10th – with plenty of golf left to play.
The challenge for McIlroy and Hovland coming home remained the same as when they started two and a half hours earlier: to manage the course or try to conquer it. True to the spirit of the game, they chose the latter.
Delayed again by the course’s peculiar crossing stop-go procession of the other contenders, they chatted amiably in front of the clock on the 11th, as time ticked away in the gloaming.
All afternoon, they had been metaphorically joined at the hip. Now McIlroy broke free at last with a birdie at the 14th for the sole lead – only to hand it back when he banged the ball into the wall on the Road Hole and posted his only bogey of the day. When he and his friendly rival birdied the 18th, parity was resumed.
A pretty special Saturday, then, for McIlroy, Hovland, the Old Course and the game – just when it was needed.