Open 2022: Home hero Rory McIlroy laughing all the way to the Claret Jug as more magic sets up St Andrews thriller


THERE had been plenty of talk about Rory McIlroy feeling the heat — under severe pressure to end an eight-year wait for a Major title.

But you would not have believed it yesterday — not while McIlroy and Ryder Cup team-mate Viktor Hovland laughed and joked and fist-bumped their way around the Old Course at St Andrews, like a pair of pals enjoying a breezy round at the local municipal.

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Rory McIlroy was in a celebratory mood after chipping in for eagle on the 10th as he stormed to the top of the Open leaderboardCredit: Reuters
Rory McIlroy is in contention to take his first major victory since 2014

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Rory McIlroy is in contention to take his first major victory since 2014Credit: Getty
McIlroy was all smiles with playing partner Viktor Hovland... but that will change on Sunday

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McIlroy was all smiles with playing partner Viktor Hovland… but that will change on SundayCredit: Reuters
McIlroy sits joint top of the leaderboard going into the final round

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McIlroy sits joint top of the leaderboard going into the final roundCredit: Rex

Until they got into bother at the ‘Road Hole’ 17th, neither had a single bogey.

There may be a little less bonhomie between the duo when they head out as joint leaders this afternoon, four shots ahead of the chasing pack, with the Claret Jug up for grabs.

McIlroy has been threatening a victory like this all season. He finished second, fifth and eighth in the three US Majors, won twice on the PGA Tour and has risen to second in the world rankings.

While the Northern Irishman has not added to his four Majors since 2014, you could not have detected a monkey on his back or an intense longing in his heart.

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McIlroy simply looked like a man happy in his work, a spring in his step and a smile on his lips. Doing what he does and doing it mightily well.

Almost every tee shot was straight and true, most of his approaches were immaculate — and then there was a moment of majesty at the tenth. McIlroy has been well placed a couple of shots off the lead  most of the week, but when he drove into a greenside bunker at that par four, his time had come.

The man from Hollywood, Co Down, pulled out his wedge — or was it a wand? — and with a puff of sand, three bounces and a cheeky little roll to the hole, McIlroy had an eagle and the lead.

The Norwegian Hovland watched on as his lead slipped away, while world No 1 Scottie Scheffler, one group ahead, saw it all from the 11th tee.

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McIlroy shook the hand of caddie Harry Diamond, punched the air and, all of a sudden, the 33-year-old resembled that teenage tyro again, the George Best of golf, tearing on to the scene.

While McIlroy needs a Green Jacket at Augusta to complete a career Grand Slam, a Claret Jug at St Andrews would be every bit as special, after his previous Open success at Hoylake in 2014.

He had been outspoken in his defence of the golfing establishment and his condemnation of the LIV Golf rebels threatening to tear the sport asunder.

Here, he played like a man with his sights truly set on the game’s greatest old prizes, rather than sackfuls of Saudi cash.

McIlroy has finished in the top ten at 16 Majors since he last won one a biggie, at the 2014 US PGA — but rarely has he truly looked like winning one until now.

Here though, he was in a relaxed mood, chatting away to Diamond about Ireland’s extraordinary rugby triumph over the All Blacks earlier in the day.

McIlroy and Hovland both began the day two shots behind the overnight leader, the Aussie mullet merchant Cameron Smith. But by the fifth hole, Hovland was outright leader with McIlroy joint second.

The Norwegian, not known for his short game, suddenly discovered a white-hot putter and went on an extraordinary blitz of four straight birdies. At the third, Hovland drained one from 38ft, then bettered that effort with a 42-footer on four.

At the following hole, the Norwegian took aim from 52ft for eagle, and left himself a tap-in to hit the front.

On the sixth tee, Hovland was peering out towards a distant leaderboard and openly beaming, as if to say ‘f*** my old boots, I’m leading The Open’.

Cameron Smith suffered a frustrating round as he was passed by McIlroy and Hovland

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Cameron Smith suffered a frustrating round as he was passed by McIlroy and HovlandCredit: Reuters

Then he sank what had begun to look like a routine 19-footer for another birdie.

McIlroy had nailed a couple of approach shots, inside Hovland’s own efforts, only to watch his partner do the business while he missed.

But he birdied the fifth and sixth and, after those fireworks from the sandtrap at ten, McIlroy was never off top spot around the back nine.

Smith and early leader Cameron Young, in the final group, were struggling to keep pace.

Aussie Smith double-bogeyed the 13th, stepping into the sand, for a lie just outside the bunker but botching his iron shot and hitting gorse bushes.

McIlroy pulled ahead of Hovland, going close with a 35ft eagle putt and tapping home for the outright lead.

At the 17th, McIlroy’s uncharacteristically consistent round finally hit a bump.

After driving into the rough on the left, he hacked out, over the road and almost up against the wall.

After a half-decent recovery he sent a long par putt to within inches, while Hovland salvaged par, getting up and down from a gravel path adjacent to the road, and the pair were joint-leaders again.

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McIlroy drove into the Valley of Sin at the front of the 18th green and rolled his eagle putt to within inches, with Hovland also holing a tiddler for birdie.

The duo embraced warmly before they strode to the scorer’s hut to register their 66s. Today, it might not be quite so chummy.





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