Seven years, eleven months, six days. It’s been a long time since Rory McIlroy won the Major, since he came 18th on August 10, 2014 as the winner of the PGA Championship. At the time, he was 25, and the future looked wide open and golden.
Now, he is 33 years old, and while his stature in the sport remains undeniable and undeniable, the major drought has reached enormous proportions. He’s become the master of the backdoor top 10, playing well since the tournament’s decision – he’s averaged nearly two top 10s per year since his 2014 win – but now, finally, he’s once again that elusive. We are in a position to capture the fifth Major.
McIlroy and Victor Hovland, the only players on the field to shoot a bogey-free round, engaged in a spectacular match-playing duel all day, tying the day for the lead at -16.
The leaders didn’t start until around 4 p.m. local time, and a few hours earlier, the players at the bottom of the leaderboard enjoyed an unusually easy St Andrews. Kevin Kisner, in the day’s round, carded a seven-under 65, and several other players put on equals to get into the eyes of the leaders.
The 36-hole leader, Cam Smith, didn’t have the same put stroke on Saturday as he displayed during the week, and went from a two-stroke lead to a four-stroke deficit. His playing partner, Cameron Young, also struggled, finishing a day at -12 to end a 1 round, when standing still was like going backwards.
McIlroy, meanwhile, is fully focused in the moment and connected in a way that he hasn’t in the past, well, eight years. In the last two major Saturdays, McIlroy scored 74 (worst of the week, by three strokes) at the PGA Championship and 73 (worst by four strokes) at the US Open.
McIlroy tied for the lead with a highlight-reel eagle on 10, then took it away from Hovland with a birdie on 14. He dropped his first bogey of the day on the 17th, but immediately went to the clubhouse for the 18th birdie – 16.
“He’s one of the most loved guys on a country mile tour, so I think most players would be more than happy for him to win,” said US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick. “Same with Victor. He’s a great kid too.”
“They’re out there chanting his name. I think he’s definitely a favorite of the crowd,” Scheffler said. “How come you can’t root for Rory?”
As the afternoon wore on, the scoring opportunities dwindled and the bad decisions increased. Smith thoroughly blasted his championship hopes with some curious shotmaking decisions on the vicious 13th hole, which ended in thick gore around the green. He will go to double bogey the hole and drop four shots off the lead.
Dustin Johnson, meanwhile, seemed to be losing all touch around the greens on the last nine. He scored two straight bogey cards on the 13th and 14th, and another on the 16th, to be six strokes behind McIlroy. He and his teammate, Masters Champion Scotty Scheffler, both struggled their way through the final hole and the championship may have fallen out of reach.
Down the leaderboard, 2019 Open champion Shane Lowry scored an astonishing feat – back-to-back Eagles on 9 and 10 that extended them to within four strokes of the lead. But a terrible final seven holes – three bogeys, one birdie – left him at -7 and out of reach of the lead.
Lori later said, “I’m so disappointed to be honest because I worked so hard, and I try so hard to get myself into those positions, and I’m disappointed because I’ve been in that long.” “(If) I shoot 1-under for the last seven holes (then) I’m very excited about going into my chances (Sunday). Now I don’t have a chance. It’s very disappointing.”
Nevertheless, Lori still had enough left in the tank to give Justin Thomas some grief. Thomas cold-topped his T-shot on Friday the 18th, so Lori patted him, and Thomas responded in kind. (Careful for gentle ears.)
Rain is expected throughout the night, which could change how leaders attack the course on Sunday. But with the best of many sports in a position to claim the claret jug, Sunday is an extraordinary way to close out the men’s major season, and the perfect way to wrap up the 150th Open Championship.
Contact Jay Busbee at [email protected] or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.