Twenty-nine majors, or 2,898 days, have come and gone for Rory McIlroy since he raised the US PGA Championship trophy aloft at Valhalla. Shortly after quarter past seven on day three of this, the 150th Open Championship, McIlroy leapt to the summit of the leaderboard. He will start the fourth round tied for that position and, more significantly, 18 holes from the major winning tally of Seve Ballesteros.
The Spaniard would surely approve of McIlroy claiming number five at St Andrews. In the space of almost eight occasionally painful years, McIlroy has never been closer to achieving such a feat. He has never looked more capable of achieving it. Yet the 33-year-old will know – only too well – of the hard yards ahead. In Viktor Hovland, who shares 16 under par with McIlroy, the Northern Irishman has a formidable opponent. The duo traded blows like superstar boxers on day three here. Matching 66s felt perfectly appropriate as McIlroy and Hovland separated themselves from the field.
Not that it would be wise to completely discount all pretenders. The scale of brilliance from Hovland and McIlroy just made an alternative champion difficult to foresee. Cameron Young and Cameron Smith are closest to the leaders, at 12 under. Kim Si-woo is a shot further back, alongside the world No 1, Scottie Scheffler. Kim’s 67 was the lowest day-three score of that group.
Should McIlroy emerge victorious, thoughts will turn towards round three’s pivotal moment. A bunker shot from about 30 yards is supposedly the hardest in golf. What a mockery was made of that concept at the 10th, where he holed out for an eagle. What is it about McIlroy and major championship sand traps? He leapt with joy at Augusta National having found the bottom of the cup at the 72nd hole from a greenside bunker. In Fife, McIlroy punched the air to rapturous applause.
Hovland had flown from the traps. The Norwegian rattled off four birdies in a row from the 3rd. McIlroy, who had missed chances, was the man under pressure. His response, courtesy of birdies at the 5th, 6th and 9th before heroics on 10, was that of a champion. Hovland and McIlroy were now level at 15 under.
McIlroy’s subsequent advantage, earned at the 14th, was cancelled out at the penultimate hole. Hovland expertly saved par from a path. McIlroy, whose second shot was long enough to leave only just enough room for a backswing against the perimeter wall, could score no better than five. Both players made birdies at the last, with the scale of mutual appreciation over what had transpired over the previous four and a quarter hours made perfectly clear.
Dustin Johnson, the LIV rebel most likely to win the Open, reached 12 under after a dozen holes. He was within three of the lead. Bogeys at the 13th, 14th and 16th halted his charge. The former world No 1 did make a birdie at the last after a topped drive but at 10 under requires snookers.
Tommy Fleetwood and Matt Fitzpatrick sit at nine under. Fleetwood delivered a 66. Tyrrell Hatton began the day at minus eight but slipped to a 73. Hatton looked on at the slow play of his partner, Talor Gooch, with murderous intent.
This could prove a memorable weekend for Filippo Celli, the Italian amateur, who finds himself in pole position to collect the silver medal. Celli is four under after a 71. He has his eyes fixed on a bigger prize, next September in his homeland. “I hope I’m that Italian guy who will be playing in the Ryder Cup in Rome,” Celli said. “It would be great.”
Shane Lowry chipped in for an eagle at the 9th before repeating the feat on the very next hole. Such a scenario had not played out at an Open since 2001. Lowry had reached nine under par at that juncture, meaning his position of minus seven at close of play was a frustration. The 2019 champion believes he has “no chance” of a second Open victory.
“I felt like through the middle of the front nine I was just going along OK, not doing anything great,” Lowry explained. “Obviously 9 and 10 happened and I felt like I was in the tournament.
“I am pretty annoyed and pretty pissed off, to be honest. I keep telling myself and keep saying all the time that you want to get yourself to the back nine on a Saturday with an opportunity to do something great. I got myself there today and I didn’t perform. So that’s very disappointing.”
Jordan Spieth’s 68 moved him to minus eight. “I’ll probably do an ice bath tonight,” he said. “Ice baths are a lot harder in Scotland than they are in Memphis.” Spieth is lucky he only visits these shores in summer.
“I need some kind of crazy monsoon to arrive tomorrow to have a chance,” Spieth added. “Even if I shoot eight under, I still think I lose by more than three. I’m in a position where shooting seven or eight under would mean a really strong finish and I would gain a lot of momentum. There will be no ‘give up’. It’s not like I’m in 45th.”
Xander Schauffele made an eagle at the last but two sixes on the back nine had already put paid to his chances. Schauffele sits at minus five. Jon Rahm and Will Zalatoris are on the same aggregate. Justin Thomas’s birdie three at the 17th at 3.15pm was the first of the day at that famous hole, which played more like a par five. McIlroy and Hovland, Ryder Cup teammates, reached that point while still in the midst of open warfare. It was the most compelling of sporting theatre.