ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Viktor Hovland smiles an awful lot for a villain. He didn’t ask for that label. He hasn’t done a single thing to deserve it—apart from having the audacity to match Rory McIlroy shot-for-shot on Saturday at the Old Course. He has emerged as the chief obstacle between McIlroy and what can only be described as Golfing Nirvana. How dare he.
Rory is the most popular golfer this side of Tiger Woods. He just is. It might’ve been Phil Mickelson not too long ago, but no longer. Rory’s Q-Rating has never been higher than this year, when he has emerged as the de facto spokesman for the good-guy half of the professional golf schism. The press adores him. When he holed out from a bunker for a most spectacular eagle on the par-4 10th, a good half of the press tent erupted in applause, not bothering to even try to conceal a bias that is only human. When they ask him questions, he thinks, and then he answers, and that’s more than you can say for plenty of his peers. The people who work behind the scenes at golf tournaments love him, for he treats them with respect and doesn’t act like he deserves special treatment because he’s excellent at a sport, and that’s more than you can say for plenty of his peers. The fans love him. They’re singing his name at the Old Course and at the pubs that dot this town, spurred on by a few pints, well into the early-morning hours. His fellow players love him. Everybody loves him.
If Martin Slumbers (R&A chief executive), Mike Whan (USGA), Jay Monahan (PGA Tour) and Keith Pelley (DP World Tour) had to collectively hand-pick the Champion Golfer for this, the 150th Open Championship at the Home of Golf, they’d pick Rory. He’s close. He looks ready—to end an eight-year major drought, to jumpstart a career for the ages, to win an Open at St. Andrews. That, in his own words, is the Holy Grail of Golf.
McIlroy’s six-under 66 on Saturday was the continuation of a phenomenal summer of golf. He’s been building toward this 54-hole lead—which he shares with big, bad Viktor Hovland, and they’re four clear of the two Camerons in third—all summer. There was the final-round 64 at Augusta, the early lead at Southern Hills, the tour de force in Canada, the half-chance at Brookline. Data Golf pegs him as the world’s finest golfer at the moment. He’s looked the part all week, carrying himself with an equanimity that has rubbed off on his golf. The driver swing’s as rapid as ever, but there is not a hint of violence. The iron swing’s been in perfect rhythm, and his lag putting has been exceptional. So has his decision making. “I'm trying to play with discipline,” he said. “I'm trying to play the percentages.”
He’s staying within himself. Or trying to, at least. Even after that hole-out on 10 on Saturday, he made sure not to get too hyped. He can’t let himself think of what it would feel like, the sheer catharsis that would come with hoisting the claret jug on Sunday, for that’s the fastest way to ensure he doesn’t hoist the claret jug on Sunday. He’s making a conscious effort to avoid listening too much to the crowds, which have showered him with a pure adoration normally reserved for Woods.
“The support that I've gotten this week has been absolutely incredible,” McIlroy said. “I appreciate it and I feel it out there. 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.”
That will not be easy, for the entire golfing universe seems intent on doing everything it can to pull him over the line. Consider Kamal Yechoor, a 32-year-old consultant from New York who flew across the Atlantic on Saturday to watch his favorite golfer.
“He plays the game with so much charisma and is a leader that truly meets the moment,” Yechoor says. “He’s been so forthcoming about how he’s grown and matured over time that I feel like I experience the game through rooting for him. Every time he drives it 350 I’m just in awe. Like, I’ll never do that. But when he gets in front of that podium and talks about how he’s truly feeling. That’s just not how today’s hardcore modern athlete is wired. And that relatability breeds a sense that we’re in it together even though I’ve never met the dude and probably never will.”
Few golfers in the history of the game inspire that kind of passion. Fans feel a parasocial connection with him, and for five straight hours on Saturday the ones lucky enough to be at St. Andrews let him know how they feel about him. Hovland noticed. He said his experience at last year’s Ryder Cup helped prepare him to feel like the Other Guy, which is ironic considering McIlroy was on that team with him. World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, playing in the group ahead, couldn’t help but smile when McIlroy’s eagle landed. He was asked if he feels there is a crowd favorite. Yes. He didn’t feel the need to clarify who that is. Obvious, isn’t it? Still, someone asked.
“Isn't it Rory? I was like, they're chanting his name out there,” Scheffler said. “I think he's definitely a crowd favorite. How can you not root for Rory?”
Matt Fitzpatrick concurs: “I heard people watching, just where all the food and tented villages are and stuff like that, and I heard a big cheer. So I knew something must have gone on. He's one of the most likable guys on tour by a country mile, so I think most players would be more than happy for him to win.”
The golfing gods, of course, care little for such sentimentality. Everyone wanting Rory to win does not mean Rory will win. To do that, he will have to continue plotting his way around a baked-out St. Andrews, patient when he needs to be and aggressive when he can be.
“I'm not going to take anything for granted," McIlroy said. "I don't feel like I can fall back on 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.”
He has earned this opportunity, a momentous opportunity, to deliver one of those where-were-you afternoons. Just 18 holes, and one especially affable adversary, stand between McIlroy and glory.