Rory McIlroy shares lead with Viktor Hovland heading into final round of The Open

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Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland shake hands at the end of the third round (AFP via Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland shake hands at the end of the third round (AFP via Getty Images)

Every now and then, there are sporting moments so perfect they seem guided by fate. A rare instance where the collective yearning is so fiercely ingrained it forces itself into fruition. When Rory McIlroy stepped into one of the cavernous bunkers that guards the tenth hole at St Andrews, he had trailed his playing partner Viktor Hovland by one shot at the top of the leaderboard. But as the Northern Irishman’s ball carried the steep ledge that fronts the green and skidded to a halt just in time to catch the lip of the hole, the sense of destiny felt almost irresistable. That would downplay the reality, of course, which required something close to golfing genius.

After eight years of withering near-misses and endless introspection, McIlroy will take a share of the lead into the final round of The Open. There will still be 18 holes of relentless pressure, the vagaries of the weather and not least the threat of Hovland to negotiate on a Sunday that could exorcise so many demons, but McIlroy could hardly have wished for better than a round of 66 that featured just a single bogey at the Road Hole. In the same vein of calm conviction he has shown all week, the 33-year-old immediately made amends with a birdie at the last and the shouts of approval that greeted him will now turn bleary with excitement and expectation.

Keeping that same composure on Sunday will be an altogether different task, and there are still a host of names within reach if McIlroy and Hovland can’t avoid being swept up in the eye of the storm. Cameron Smith and Cameron Young were the final pair out on Saturday and lacked the sort of fireworks that propelled them into contention. They were still able to grit their teeth and grind out rounds of 72 and 71 respectively though to leave themselves four shots off the lead and in with a chance. The world No 1 Scottie Scheffler is one shot further back and Dustin Johnson will have Tommy Fleetwood for company on Sunday, with Matt Fitzpatrick reinforcing an English presence on the first page of the leaderboard.

The glare will be magnified no end but McIlroy still needed to avoid being lost in the spotlight of this third round. His hopes had frittered away after promising starts at all three of the previous majors this year but he didn’t become overly aggressive or stray from a measured game plan after an early streak of pars saw others in the field leapfrog ahead.

The intricate nature of the Old Course often leads to players overlapping or being forced to wait for long stretches on the tee-box as their closest rivals putt on adjacent greens. It was the cause of mind-numbing delays during six hour three-balls on Thursday and Friday but it added to the intrigue and intimacy of the competition on Saturday. As McIlroy and Hovland paced up to inspect the fifth green, they reached the crest of the hill just in time to watch Scheffler rattle in a 30ft birdie putt. And at that point, it felt as though the American pairing of Scheffler and Johnson might revive the macho dominance of the Ryder Cup. Johnson, who led at the halfway stage in 2015 only to shoot a pair of 75s, had quashed any notion of a repeat with two birdies in his opening three holes to encroach on Smith’s lead.

The scoreboard rotated like a long-distance race, with runners poking their heads out in front and smelling clean air only to soon fall back into the pack. While Scheffler and Johnson waited on the sixth tee, it was their turn to watch as McIlroy rolled in his first birdie of the day and, if they didn’t see his next, it was made known by the huge roar that went up around the sixth green. While he might not have been the main recipient of that affection, Hovland was basking in the atmosphere engulfing his group too and four birdies in a row propelled the Norwegian into the outright lead as he made the turn at -14. McIlroy’s birdie at the ninth ensured the gap was just one. Smith, whose flawless putting had wavered from the off in the heat of the final group, also took advantage of the driveable par-4 to stay within touching distance.

The spectators surrounding the tenth would have been forgiven for thinking they’d see nothing more extraordinary than Shane Lowry pitching in for a second consecutive eagle earlier in the afternoon. But then McIlroy lit the fuse that denotated in the greenside bunker and changed the entire complexion of this tournament.

The eagle incited hysteria as the Northern Irishman took the lead and the magnitude of that shot seemed to reverberate around the course and put uncertainty into the minds of his rivals. Scheffler wielded his putter as though it were barbed in thorns, Johnson compounded the misery of his own missed tiddler by chipping into a bunker and Smith made a double bogey at 13 after swapping sand for gorse. Only Hovland and Young seemed able to weather the storm as the wind picked up and billowed in McIlroy’s sails. A two-putt birdie at the par-5 14th put him in clear air but his one blemish at the penultimate hole meant that lead would have to be shared with Hovland at -16.

Whether it is to finally be McIlroy’s time again or another portrait of agony is destined to unfold, it is already guaranteed to be a final round worthy of this grand old stage.

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