Seven years, eleven months, six days. That’s how long it’s been since Rory McIlroy won a major, since he walked off the 18th at August 10, 2014 as the winner of the PGA Championship. Back then, he was 25 years old, and the future appeared wide open and golden.
Now, he’s 33, and while his stature in the game remains unquestioned and unchallenged, the major drought has reached drastic proportions. He’s become a master of the backdoor top 10, playing well after the tournament’s been decided — he’s averaged nearly two top 10s per year since that 2014 victory — but now, at last, he’s in position once again to capture that elusive fifth major.
McIlroy and Viktor Hovland, the only player in the field to shoot a bogey-free round, engaged in a brilliant match play duel all day long, and finished the day tied for the lead at -16.
The leaders didn’t tee off until almost 4 pm local time, and in the hours before, the players further down the leaderboard enjoyed an uncommonly easy St. Andrews. Kevin Kisner carded the round of the day, a seven-under 65, and numerous other players played well under par to get within sight of the leaders.
Cam Smith, the 36-hole leader, didn’t have quite the same putting stroke on Saturday as he’d exhibited during the week, and went from a two-stroke lead to a four-stroke deficit. His playing partner, Cameron Young, also struggled, finishing a -1 round to end at -12 on a day when standing still was like going backward.
McIlroy, meanwhile, seems fully in the moment, focused and connected in a way he hasn’t in the past, well, eight year. In the last two major Saturdays, McIlroy shot 74 in the PGA Championship (worst round of the week, by three strokes) and 73 in the US Open (worst by four strokes).
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 birdied the 18th to head into the clubhouse at – 16.
“He’s one of the most likable guys on Tour by a country mile, so I think most players would be more than happy for him to win,” said reigning US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick, who finished the day at -9. “Same with Viktor. He’s a great kid too.”
“They’re chanting his name out there. I think he’s definitely a crowd favorite,” Scheffler said. “How can you not root for Rory?”
As the afternoon wore on, the scoring chances dwindled and the bad decisions grew. Smith may well have detonated his championship hopes on the vicious 13th hole with some curious shotmaking decisions that ended up in the thick gorse around the green. He would go on to double bogey the hole and drop four shots off the lead.
Dustin Johnson, meanwhile, seemed to lose all touch around the greens on the back nine. He carded two straight bogeys on the 13th and 14th, and another on the 16th, to fall six strokes behind McIlroy. He and his playing partner, reigning Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, both struggled their way through the final holes and may have let a championship get out of reach.
Further down the leaderboard, 2019 Open champion Shane Lowry pulled off an astounding feat — back-to-back eagles at 9 and 10 that surged him to within four strokes of the lead. But a horrendous final seven holes — three bogeys, one birdie — left him at -7 and well out of reach of the lead.
“I’m so disappointed to be honest because I worked so hard, and I work so hard to get myself in those positions, and I’m as disappointed as I’ve been in a long time,” Lowry said afterward. “(If) I shoot 1-under for the last seven holes (then) I’m very bullish about my chances going into (Sunday). Now I have no luck. It’s just very disappointing.”
Even so, Lowry still had enough left in the tank to give Justin Thomas some grievance. Thomas cold-topped his tee shot on 18 on Friday, so Lowry jabbed him, and Thomas responded in kind. (Careful for tender ears.)
Rain is expected to roll overnight, which could change how the leaders attack the course on Sunday. But with many of the game’s best in position to claim the Claret Jug, Sunday is shaping up to be an exceptional way to close out the men’s major season, and a perfect way to wrap up the 150th Open Championship.
Contact Jay Busbee at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.