ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Dustin Johnson and Scottie Scheffler were laughing about something. Their caddies were, too. That can happen during a third round, even at a major championship. They were much closer to the lead then, too, but that was about to change.
Straddling his bunkered golf ball 70 yards away from them, Rory McIlroy splashed out onto a little knob of the green. If you haven’t seen the clips already, get thee to a highlight reel. It checked, released, and dropped into the hole for an eagle. Johnson and Scheffler had no choice but to keep laughing. The grandstand next to them erupted. Three man making that shot on this course in The Open? Random acts of life feel scripted sometimes, and this was one of them.
Viktor Hovland, playing alongside McIlroy, called the shot “filthy,” even though his solo lead was no longer his solo lead. The crowd chanted his name with every step he took to reclaim his ball, but he tried to keep his actions muted. Play had to resume, and Johnson was waiting for some quiet to play his shot.
It should be clear at home because it’s damn clear at the Old Course: a Rory McIlroy party has begun, with the man of the hour tied for the lead with Hovland at 16 under. One spectator spoke loud enough above the horde on 10: “That was the best thing I’ve seen in the history of golf.” Forgive his hyperbole, but also forgive the crowd. They clearly want this, too. To be able to say they saw McIlroy win an Open at St. Andrews. To leap over the Swilcan Burn Sunday afternoon, just as fans did for Tiger Woods in 2000. Scheffler was asked afterwards if he felt like there’s a crowd favorite at this event. “Yes,” he said, chuckling in bewilderment. In any other scenario, we would all laugh at how silly the question was. But in the interview setting, Scheffler’s is the only voice that counts.
“Isn’t it Rory?” he said. “I was like, they’re chanting his name out there. I think he’s definitely a crowd favourite. How can you not root for Rory?”
How can you not? He’s the most eloquent speaker in men’s golf, swooning the press. He’s a champion many times over, pulling in the golf history fiends. With those manners and morals, he’s definitely won Best Golfer to Bring Home to Your Parents. There’s a gracefulness to his intensely powerful swing, mixed in with enough “How could you yes that?” moments. Science, suspense, relatability. It’s all lining up this week.
Here at The Open, you can measure a player’s importance by their reception on the 18th hole. Look no further than what we saw for Woods and Phil Mickelson Friday. If the grandstands swell with bodies, that’s a good sign. If the throngs chant your name like it’s the only word they know, even better. If they sprint in from the rest of the course to secure a seat – or climb onto the side of the grandstands, like they did for Woods – you’re a special chap. If Peyton and Eli Manning squint into the sun, best they can from their VIP hotel balcony, just trying to get a glimpse of you? Celeb status, too! But perhaps the best (and most subtle) sign of McIlroy’s importance came from Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, Friday night.
With the sun setting over the town late Friday night, Slumbers and three mates stepped out onto the R&A balcony to check out the raucous scene McIlroy had created. He opened with a 66 and was about to polish off a 68. Slumbers is a busy, busy man, and that balcony has barely been used by anything but TV cameras. But Friday night Slumbers wanted to see how the crowd would react to a McIlroy birdie. Unfortunately for him, there would be no birdie. McIlroy three-putted through the Valley of Sin for a finishing par. As the crowd shrugged their collective shoulders, Slumbers and Co. quickly whipped around in retreat. The reigning Champion Golfer of the Year, Collin Morikawa, was still putting out, but Slumbers was off to other business.
Win or lose, McIlroy’s status as one of the most powerful figures in the game is cemented. But his status as the best golfer on the planet has been in question for years. It’s a hard thing to hold on to. He has spent the last eight years worth of majors trying to stick to his process and exist happily “in my cocoon,” as he called it. But that cocoon is not sound proof. Tens of thousands of fans will arrive Sunday in St. Andrews wanting and McIlroy winning. The irony of all that support — the most undeniable experience at this 150th Open — is twofold:
1. It may not matter one bit. Hovland has nothing to lose – he’s destined for his best finish in a major by far – and has made the same number of strokes (200). It’s even on the scorecard and damn-near even in golfing ability. And only a planet’s worth of difference in the weight on their shoulders.
2. For a golfer as human as McIlroy, all that support can become a bit much.
“I appreciate it and I feel it out there,” he said after his round. “But at the same time 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. I try to acknowledge as much as I can but I’m just trying to stay in my process, stay in my own little bubble and I just have to do that for one more day.”
One more day. Twenty-four more hours. It’s bound to feel a lot longer than that.