Rory McIlroy seeking memorable victory at The Open
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
Rory McIlroy's bunker eagle to take solo lead at The Open
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Before St. Andrews’ links was condensed from 22 to 18 holes in the 18th century, setting the standard for the game that we know today, the course’s start and finish came on a small grass hill that sits about 100 yards from what is now one of the most famous settings in golf. Today, the R&A clubhouse and The Open’s enormous grandstand obscures the view of the knoll that once was an integral part of the game’s most historic course. That site still carries significance, though, recognizing another important piece of the town’s history. The Martyrs’ Monument, a 30-foot-tall sandstone obelisk that remembers four men killed in the 16th century for their Protestant beliefs, stands where golfers once hit their tee shots.
The deaths of Patrick Hamilton, Henry Forrest, George Wishart and Walter Mill preceded the Scottish Reformation, one of the most influential periods in the country’s history. It turned Scotland into a staunchly Protestant country, giving rise to a faith that holds the sovereignty of God as one of its key tenets, and saw the preacher John Knox become one of Scotland’s most famous men.
Their religion and golf are two of the three things that the famed golf course architect Alister Mackenzie once wrote that the Scottish take seriously (politics is the other).
The royal and ancient game long ago supplanted the Christian faith as the centerpiece of St. Andrews’ culture, with the town being described in a 19th century poem as “a city given over, soul and body to a tyrannizing game” but there may not be a game over which the divine are said to exert more influence than the one that still attracts hordes of weary pilgrims here. Even atheists talk openly about the “golf gods” and their pernicious plotting. St. Andrews is the game’s spiritual center and many would agree that the story being authored at this milestone Open here appears to have been predestined by a higher power.
Great Britain’s favorite son has a chance to win The Open at the Home of Golf and continue his quest to become the best player his continent has ever produced. To do so, however, he’ll have to beat the player that many think will follow in his footsteps. Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland are tied atop The Open’s leaderboard at 16-under 200, four shots clear of the two Camerons who are tied for third, the law firm of Smith and Young. It will be the second straight day that McIlroy and Hovland, teammates at last year’s Ryder Cup, have gone head-to-head. They both shot 66s on Saturdays while Smith and Young, who were paired in Saturday’s final group, combined to only shoot even par.
Hovland, 24, already owns six worldwide wins, including three on the PGA TOUR, and is ninth in the world ranking. He has yet to finish in the top 10 of a major, however.
McIlroy has finished in the top 10 of every Grand Slam event this year, leaving last month’s U.S. Open saying, “I’m closer than I’ve been in awhile.” The last of his four major triumphs was eight years ago, however. A win Sunday would equal Seve Ballesteros in career majors and put McIlroy within one of Nick Faldo’s record for most major wins by a European in the modern era (since the Masters debuted in 1934).
“It's unbelievably cool to have a chance to win The Open at St Andrews,” McIlroy said. “It's what dreams are made of. And I'm going to try to make a dream come true tomorrow.”
It’s easy to get poetic at the Old Course. The historic setting encourages it. But there’d be a symmetry to McIlroy walking down 18 on Sunday as the champion just two days after he crossed paths with Woods on what could be Woods’ final walk across the Swilcan Bridge. Pace of play has been a talking point all week, but it allowed their paths to cross on the shared fairway for the Old Course’s first and final holes and for McIlroy to doff his cap in a gesture of respect.
Legacies are made at the Old Course. Ballesteros and Faldo won Opens at S. Andrews. Jack Nicklaus and Woods each won twice here, as well. Bobby Jones won here during his Grand Slam season of 1930 and famously declared that a player must win on the Old Course to truly be considered great. There isn’t a player remaining at St. Andrews for whom his place in history is a bigger inspiration than McIlroy. On Saturday evening, after grinding through a cold and windy closing stretch, McIlroy wouldn’t indulge queries about the significance of a potential victory, however. Even as fans stomped their feet in their grandstands and chanted his name, hungry for even the slightest acknowledgement, McIlroy kept his head down, especially on those closing holes that became difficult as the weather turned dour. Entering his “cocoon” insulates him from the pressure of playing for history.
“I'm trying my hardest just to stay in my own little world because that's the best way for me to get the best out of myself,” McIlroy said. “I just have to do that for one more day.”
He acquitted himself well Saturday, staying patient when Hovland birdied Nos. 3-6. He matched Hovland’s birdies on 5 and 6, then picked up two shots on “The Loop,” the circular stretch of holes out by Eden Estuary that sends players back toward town, to tie the lead. He did so dramatically, holing a long bunker shot for eagle on the par-4 10th. McIlroy took the lead with a birdie at 14, but bogeyed 17 after hitting his approach near the ancient wall behind the green. He closed with a birdie from the Valley of Sin, however, and Hovland made a matching birdie to share the lead entering Sunday.
The margins are slim at St. Andrews. The firm conditions mean there are plenty of eagle opportunities, but the hole locations are tucked behind the dramatic slopes and swales that make St. Andrews unique. Earlier this week, McIlroy called the course “fiddly” because it demanded a deft touch and admitted that it was a style of play that didn’t always suit his game, which has been built to overpower courses. The Old Course rewards length but players also have to be prudent.
“Nothing's given to you,” McIlroy said, “and I have to go out there and earn it just like I've earned everything else in my career.”
He’s right, though it’s easy to think that in golf’s spiritual home he may have assistance.
Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.