ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Major championships appeal to all five senses. They are often an exercise in four consecutive days of sensory overload. This 150th Open Championship has been no different. The sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes of St. Andrews were all present Saturday as Rory McIlroy put one hand on his second Claret Jug.
McIlroy and playing partner Viktor Hovland shot 66s to co-lead at 16 under entering the final round at St. Andrews. They sit four clear of the field. McIlroy has won the last four majors at which he has either led or co-led going into the last 18 holes, a position in which he has not found himself since the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla.
First came the sounds. After driving a ball into a bunker — his first this week — on the 10th hole, McIlroy canned his shot for drop-in eagle. An explosion erupted at the northernmost end of the course. Chants of “Ro-ry! Ro-ry! Ro-ry!” whipped around the far loop of the most famous track in the world, echoing what was sung in town the night before.
Well past midnight, off Market Street at an underrated pizza joint called “Big Boss,” grown men sung the only name that matters this weekend at St. Andrews.There is no doubt who this town and perhaps the entire golf world is roaring for down the stretch.
Then came the touch. Hovland fist-bumped McIlroy after making birdie of his own at No. 10. It came in the middle of their best-ball 63 on Saturday, putting both in contention at the most important major of the year. Their pairing combined to score one eagle, 11 birdies and just one bogey on the round. One nearly expected them to walk off the 18th with their arms around each other as they declared a future pairing at the next three Ryder Cups.
“Rory is a good guy, so I don’t mind saying ‘good shot’ to him,” Hovland said. “I mean, like the bunker shot he hit on No. 10 — disregarding the situation you’re in — that’s just a filthy bunker shot. So, you just kind of have to go, ‘Hey, that was a sick shot.’ Yeah, I mean, it’s just part of the game.”
“As soon as I hit the bunker shot, I knew it was going to be close. I didn’t imagine it was going to go in,” McIlroy said. “Sometimes, you need bits of luck like that to win these sorts of tournaments. That was a real bonus, and I played well from there, but [it was] definitely the highlight of the day.”
World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, five back of the co-leaders, was more succinct: “I think he’s definitely a crowd favorite. How can you not root for Rory?”
What about the smells? They blew in off the right as the penultimate group bounded home back toward town. If you’ve ever attended major championships, you know they have a distinct smell. The Masters, for example, doesn’t smell like grass and cigars and beer and mud. It just smells like the Masters. This Open doesn’t smell like hay and sea and stone and the ever-present threat of rain. It just smells like The Open.
Then came the sights. As McIlroy stood on the 12th tee with fans running all the way down the right side of the hole, the sun peeked out from behind a typical Scottish summer sky as if it wanted to see what the fuss was all about. It danced off the water in the only corner of the course where fingers of the North Sea meet the greatest land that’s ever been formed into 18 holes. It was the only time the sun shone all afternoon.
Ninety minutes later, McIlroy walked up No. 18 as the co-leader of a tournament he’s undoubtedly desperate to win. He broke the bounce he falls into when he’s got it going good and allowed himself to drink in one of the better scenes in golf. Rory looked around and saw the sights.
“The galleries have been massive,” McIlroy said. “The ovations coming on the greens with the big grandstands, walking up 18 and that whole scene and trying to look for my parents and Erica and Poppy in the windows of the Rusacks because I know what rooms we’re staying in.”
That leaves just taste. This is the first time McIlroy’s had nobody in front of him after 54 holes since 2014. Rory is one of the great frontrunners of the modern era; he gets out in front, and all you ever see are the “Back” and “Home” on the bottom of his spikes. McIlroy closes like champions are supposed to close.
“I’ve been knocking on the door for a while now, and this is the best chance I’ve had in a long time,” he said. “I just need to stay in my own little world for one more day, and hopefully, I can play the sort of golf that’s good enough to get the job done.”
McIlroy can taste this Open.
There is a sixth sense about this place, too. The best major hosts have an air of magic, and that is true of St. Andrews. It’s difficult to put your finger on this because it’s supposed to be difficult to discern.
Rory’s minuscule ode to Tiger Woods on Friday was magic. The best player of all time coming home as the best player of the generation behind him went out with the most consequential major in the last decade on the line, and they met on a stage in the middle of a town? Come on, that’s a fairytale. We might get another one on Sunday.
In Christopher Clarey’s tremendous book on Roger Federer, “The Master,” he describes something about Federer that appears true about McIlroy as it relates to the five senses. Federer internalizes the external and pulls in everything going on around him. It’s not the only way to compete, but it’s certainly the most endearing because of how it often ends.
Federer’s finely tuned antennae are part of the explanation for his postmatch tears, much less frequent now but still inseparably part of his persona. They seem to be not just an expression of joy or disappointment but a release after all the input he has absorbed on court. It is not just about what he has invested emotionally in a match or a tournament; it is about what everyone has invested emotionally in a match or a tournament.
McIlroy will undoubtedly weep if he wins the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews on Sunday. He has done an unusually great job this week of keeping his emotions at bay, but it’s roiling even now as he sleeps on a 54-hold co-lead. How could it not? It’s been eight years since his last major, and he’s been warring for the future of golf all year.
Being Rory McIlroy takes an invisible toll that he internalizes every day. There has to be an outlet.
McIlroy said last week that he had not yet thought about coming up No. 18 on Sunday with a lead, “which is unlike me.” Surely, in a private moment on Saturday evening or Sunday morning, he’ll envision it … just for a second. The sound of winning his fifth. The sight of a swaying town as he comes home. The smell of silver. The touch of a father whose son took an Open at the Old Course. What magic tastes like.
Surely, that will slip through his mind, even if only in his subconscious.
“I think it’s appreciating the moment as well and appreciating the fact that it’s unbelievably cool to have a chance to win The Open at St. Andrews,” said McIlroy on Saturday.
“It’s what dreams are made of. And I’m going to try to make a dream come true tomorrow.”