ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Standing in one of the Old Course’s 112 bunkers on Saturday, Rory McIlroy was about to be right where he wanted to be: atop the leaderboard of the British Open.
His drive on the 10th hole had landed in trouble but not deep trouble, coming to a stop in the middle of the sand trap that defends the front of the green.
McIlroy had room to swing freely, and his second shot flew over the lip of the bunker, bounced three times and then rolled a few more feet into the cup for eagle.
The 27-yard masterstroke gave McIlroy a one-shot lead over Viktor Hovland, his playing partner.
“It was skill to get it somewhere close,” McIlroy said. But it was luck that it went in the hole. You need a little bit of luck every now and again, especially in these big tournaments. And that was a nice bonus.”
It was the sort of pleasant surprise that can make the difference between winning or losing a major championship, and Hovland got a bonus of his own on Friday when he holed out of the rough from 139 yards for eagle on the par-4 15th.
But Hovland, a 24-year-old Norwegian who excelled at Oklahoma State before turning professional in 2019, did not let McIlroy enjoy the lead alone for long. He quickly reeled McIlroy in with a birdie on the 10th that put them both at 15-under par, and they then dueled down the back nine of major golf’s most historic course.
McIlroy, from Northern Ireland, was certainly the crowd favorite, but Hovland, a dynamic presence, did not shrink from the challenge. They finished with matching rounds of 66 and a share of the lead at 16-under par that put them four shots clear of the chase pack led by the American Cameron Young and the Australian Cameron Smith, who are both at 12-under heading into Sunday. .
Of the top four men on the leaderboard, only McIlroy, 33, is already a major champion, but the most recent of his four victories came in 2014 when he won the British Open at Royal Liverpool.
Since then, he has experienced plenty of disappointing Sundays.
“Nothing’s given to you, and I have to go out there and earn it, just like I’ve earned everything else in my career,” he said.
Other major champions are also in range. Scottie Scheffler, the American who won the Masters in April and is ranked No. 1 in the world, is at 11-under, tied with Kim Si-woo of South Korea. Dustin Johnson, a two-time major winner from the United States who recently jumped to the breakaway LIV Golf series, is alone at 10-under after a mood-swinging 71 on Saturday.
Matt Fitzpatrick, the Englishman who won this year’s US Open, is at 9-under with Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, and Tommy Fleetwood.
But if McIlroy and Hovland continue to sparkle under pressure like they did on Saturday, they may not allow the pack much opportunity to close the gap.
“There’s a lot of things that can happen,” Hovland said. “In these conditions and these pin placements, you can play fine and shoot around even-par, and then that brings a lot of other guys in, as well.”
The weather is forecast to remain relatively benign on Sunday, with moderate winds and temperatures in the mid-70s. That could mean more of the low scores that have been the rule at St. Andrews in this 150th edition of the Open Championship.
Several players put on quite a show on Saturday, including Shane Lowry, who chipped in for consecutive eagles on 9 and 10; and Kevin Kisner, who barely made the cut but had the best round of the day: a 7-under-par 65 that put him in a tie for 13th place.
“It’s just a fun place to stroll around and play golf, and when the putts are going in, it makes it even more enjoyable,” Kisner said.
That seemed an apt summation of a good day on many a golf course, but success on the Old Course continues to have particular cachet even when the world’s best golfers are having their way with it.
McIlroy is well aware of what winning on Sunday would mean to him and his public — perhaps too aware.
“I love that I have received so much support,” he said. “But at the same time I need to sort of just stay in my own little world tomorrow and just play a good round of golf and hopefully that’s enough.”
It was not quite enough to shake free of Hovland in the third round. Both started the day at 10-under and in the penultimate group, ahead of second-round leader Smith and first-round leader Young.
Hovland set a torrid pace early, making four straight birdies, starting with a 38-foot birdie putt on 3 and a 42-foot birdie putt on 4. But McIlroy made birdies of his own on Nos. 5, 6 and 9 before his eagle from the sand on No. 10 and another birdie on No. 15 that gave him back the outright lead.
But he could not hold it as Hovland outscrambled him at the 17th, making par while McIlroy had to settle for bogey.
At 18, they finished the memorable round as they had started it, tied and in buoyant spirits.
“We sort of fed off each other and navigated the last few holes well,” McIlroy said.
This was pure competition, but no grim-faced tussle. There were fist bumps and smiles and plenty of chatter through much of the round.
“Talked about a whole bunch of stuff,” McIlroy said. “Talked about footwear. Talked about what he did the last couple of weeks. He went back home to Norway. He’s going back to Norway after this. Just kept it nice and loose.”
McIlroy might be nine years older, but he and Hovland developed a good rapport after playing (and losing) on the same Ryder Cup squad for Europe last year. But although they will be back together on Sunday, they are no longer teammates.
McIlroy is trying to end an eight-year major drought by prevailing at the ultimate Open venue. Hovland is trying to become the first Norwegian man to win a major.
“It’s pretty crazy from where I grew up,” Hovland said. “I have to pinch myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to hold back tomorrow.”