ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Rory McIlroy has been chasing golf’s holy grail at St. Andrews for more than a decade. He lost his way in the wind at The Open here in 2010. His mission in 2015 failed before it started because of the ankle injury he sustained playing soccer with friends. This time around his quest could have been lost in the sand, or derailed between a rock and a hard place. But unlike previous attempts, this one is going to plan.
Now, after 54 holes, McIlroy faces one of the biggest rounds of his life.
But the emphasis on the next 24 hours is to ensure that even though he is in a remarkable space in his life, nothing changes. His first concern after finishing Saturday tied with Viktor Hovland for the lead? Finding something to do Sunday morning.
On Saturday, he woke early to watch his Ireland rugby team secure a historic series win over New Zealand.
“I got a little emotional when Ireland won, actually,” he said. “It was an unbelievable achievement for them.”
He then took a nap, got to the course three hours before his tee time, did some gym work, had some lunch. Then he went out and shot 6-under 66.
There’s something about this year as he remains firmly in the mix at St. Andrews, in the 150th playing the sport’s oldest major championship, at a time when those outside LIV Golf have looked to McIlroy as the sport’s voice of reason.
We’ve been here before with McIlroy. Since his last major win in the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, he’s had top-five finishes eight times. He himself this week referenced missed opportunities — such as the Masters and The Open in 2018, and again last year at the U.S. Open. He’s bored of being the nearly man, and the key to changing that is staying true to his processes.
“It makes me play better,” he said. “Going all the way back to Augusta in 2011, I got out of my process. I got out of what I did for three days and it was a tough lesson. It was a really tough pill to swallow.
“And I went to [the U.S. Open at] Congressional, and that’s all I focused on all week. I sort of called it my little cocoon, just trying to stay in my little cocoon for the whole week. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do this week as well.”
At St. Andrews, he has kept his emotions in check as much as possible — aside from the odd fist pump and chest-bump-awkward-hug with his caddie. He allowed himself a moment Saturday to look at the windows of a nearby hotel where he knew his family would be watching.
“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,” he said.
That “cocoon” is the protection of process, patience and pragmatism.
“I’m trying to play with discipline,” he said. “I’m trying to play the percentages.”
But don’t for one minute mistake pragmatism for lack of drama — the man was the draw Saturday. Wherever he went, he had what felt like the whole of St. Andrews hanging on his every putt, chip or clenched fist.
After being 10 under through 36 holes — 3 shots off the lead — he planned to “minimize the danger” ahead of Saturday. After going out in 3-under 33, all was well. And then he approached the 10th. The hole is fittingly named after Bobby Jones. He’s the man who planted the seed of St. Andrews’ significance within the world of golf, saying if a player wanted true fulfillment they needed to win The Open here — leading to McIlroy’s “holy grail” comment earlier in the week. But as he launched a 334-yard drive down the fairway, he fell straight into the Old Course’s trap.
Of the 112 bunkers here, this one lying off the 10th green is less notorious, but still, when you’re watching a player fly around the course, you fear the slightest error could lead to a nose-dive. But a patient McIlroy twice backed off the shot as he navigated the claustrophobia of the course with Cameron Young and Cameron Smith both teeing off from the nearby ninth. On the third approach and the third time the hubbub of the crowd fell to silence, McIlroy blasted to the front of the green and it rolled into the hole for an eagle, triggering a roar to rival anything we’ve heard this week.
That was the box-office moment, but within this round were equally important shots, the sorts that may not make a highlight reel but are the building blocks for major charges. McIlroy said after his first round he was trying to make the “fiddly” side of the sport his “forte” this week — and he needed to produce all sorts of golfing contortion and nuance to keep this round moving in the right direction.
The first instance was at the 11th with his tricky 10-foot putt to save par, which received a fist pump, too. There was the 15th, where his drive found the worst of the rough. Somehow his approach found the green, and his 49-foot putt left him 5 feet for par.
He managed to avoid the infamous Road Hole bunker on the 17th, but he did find himself between a rock and a hard place as his second shot ended up a foot or so from the wall over to the right of the green. He escaped with bogey, though it could have been far, far worse and the dent on his round far greater.
McIlroy came to St. Andrews as the favorite for the Claret Jug, having won two PGA titles this year, at the CJ Cup and the Canadian Open. But his title chances were one of the several narratives here, with few looming larger than Tiger Woods. Woods and McIlroy have grown to be close friends. Before arriving at St. Andrews, the two played Ballybunion in Ireland. McIlroy said earlier in the week he was expecting to see Woods play the full four days here. Instead, as McIlroy waited on the first hole as part of the 45th grouping Friday, he saw the 19th grouping walk up the 18th. Justin Thomas, in the group behind McIlroy waiting to tee off, was there, too. Thomas is another great friend of Woods. The old master managed to hold it together until he looked over and saw his two pals tilting their caps in his direction.
That moment may grow in significance over the next few years, becoming that serendipitous instance when two careers cross — one passing the responsibility to drive the sport forward to the other. But McIlroy only let the emotion of that moment flitter through him for a millisecond.
“It was cool to be on that fairway when that was happening,” he said. “But I was concentrating on my start to the round.”
It was back to the job at hand.
Sunday offers him the chance to end the eight-year wait for another McIlroy major. But he’s not drawing on experience from where he’s gone wrong previously when he’s been in the mix; instead, he’s playing golf until he runs out of holes. There are positive omens for McIlroy. This is the sixth time he has held the lead after 54 holes in a major. Of the five previous instances, he won four of them. And this is now the first time he’s led at a major after 54 holes since 2014 and that triumph at Valhalla.
“I’m not going to take anything for granted,” he said. “I don’t feel like I can fall back in any sort of experience.
“Just like being here before and I’ve done it. But 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.”
It’s been 32 years since The Open had a British winner at St. Andrews when Nick Faldo won in 1990. Woods made his Open debut here five years after Faldo’s victory and won in 2000 and 2005. This year’s championship offers McIlroy a career-affirming chance.
But above all, it would grant McIlroy peace.
As he walked over the Swilcan Bridge on Saturday, he didn’t remove his cap. It wasn’t time for celebration. He does not yet have one hand on the Claret Jug, let alone two. Until he’s there in the middle of the 18th on Sunday lifting aloft his Holy Grail, he won’t be thinking of anything apart from the next shot and staying in his cocoon.