It was, by a distance, the moment of this 150th Open so far. Resplendent in an emerald-green polo shirt, befitting this auspicious sporting weekend for the island of Ireland, Rory McIlroy confronted a bunker shot at the 10th so treacherous that he stepped away from the ball twice.
Wary of a flier that might run and run on the glassy green, he knew his judgment needed to be immaculate. And so, channeling his ingrained sense of occasion, he holed it.
The roar was loud enough to travel across the Tay Estuary. McIlroy, a born thespian, delivered an extravagant fist-pump. Even Scottie Scheffler, preparing to drive on the 11th tee, was compelled to put his club down and applauded. The scene encapsulated the spirit of McIlroy, a player who, through a mixture of technical mastery and overt emotion, electrifies any tournament he enters.
“It was huge,” McIlroy reflected. “The pin was perched up on a little crown, and I was trying to get it somewhat close. Anything inside 10 feet, I felt, was going to be a really good shot. It just came out perfectly. It was luck that it went into the hole, but you need a little bit of luck every now and again, especially in these big tournaments.”
Vast St Andrews galleries found themselves gripped by his every move. There was a reason why McIlroy’s tip of the cap to a departing Tiger Woods had seemed like a passing of the flame: the four-time major champion is, in his idol’s absence, the one player from whom pure theater is guaranteed.
Take this year’s Masters, where he signed off his closing 64 in trademark style, splashing out from a greenside bunker and celebrating deliriously as the ball tracked into the hole.
There is one crucial difference, though, between the two bunker shots that have defined 2022 for McIlroy at the majors. At Augusta, he was always pursuing a forlorn hope of reining in a hard-charging Scheffler. But the mood on the Old Course has been palpably different all week, the crowds sensing that this was his finest chance yet of ending an eight-year wait for his fifth major title.
After all, he had begun this third round on 10 under par. The two previous times that he has reached double digits in red numbers at a major, at the 2011 US Open and the 2014 Open, he has gone on to win.
Under suffocating pressure here at St Andrews, he has appeared every inch a champion-in-waiting. His miraculous flourish from the bunker at the 10th marked his first visit to the sand all tournament.
The pressure on McIlroy can scarcely be underestimated. Everywhere you go to St Andrews, you can detect how powerfully his public is willing him to prevail. In the popularity stakes, there is nobody who comes close, with marshals required to keep the fans back as he made his way to the 14th tee.
There are many on this Open leaderboard who have collected major silverware since his most recent triumph, at the 2014 USPGA – Scheffler, Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth among them. But McIlroy’s status as the people’s favorite is secure.
It is reminiscent of the situation in the 1960s, when Jack Nicklaus was the best player but Arnold Palmer was the most loved. Finally, McIlroy is primed to convert this tide of goodwill into his second Claret Jug. Just as his driving has proved metronomically accurate, his putting has been its most lethal for years, benefiting from the expertise of short-game coach Brad Faxon.
How dearly McIlroy would love to complete the task. As a passionate Ulster supporter, he follows his rugby avidly, responding to Ireland’s stounding series victory over the All Blacks by turning up on the first tee in matching green. He had the air, on the outward half, of a man who needed a spark.
While he was peppering the pins with his approaches, Viktor Hovland, his dazzlingly talented partner, was sinking all the putts. At the eighth, he was staring at a two-shot deficit, with the Norwegian playing as if he could not miss from inside 15 feet.
Seasoned observers of McIlroy know better than to despair prematurely. The sumptuousness of his iron play would, you trust, yield its reward eventually. Sure enough, faith was repaid at the 10th, where McIlroy, having let his drive leak slightly right, conjured an inspired eagle out of nowhere. In a flash, Hovland’s momentum stalled, while McIlroy bounced into the back nine like a player transformed.
You always know McIlroy is in the zone when he starts twirling his club after the follow-through. This tell-tale tic was in evidence on the 14th, where, from 268 yards, he shaped a towering four-iron to 33 feet. Even when under threat from multiple rivals, not least Hovland and Cameron Young, he made it clear that he was the figure in charge.
The only unanswered question is whether he can bring his wondrous form to his ultimate fulfillment. It has been a long time since McIlroy entered a final round in such control of his own fate. At the 2018 Masters, he set off in the last pairing alongside Patrick Reed, but was still three back. Here, the stage is his to conquer.
Flawless in his golf and unruffled in his temperament, he is ready for an Open coronation as rapturous St Andrews has seen. According to Nicklaus, the Old Course “always” produces the finest champions. McIlroy stands to provide a stirring endorsement of that claim.