All eyes in St Andrews are on Rory McIlroy and his holy grail moment at The Open

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All eyes in St Andrews are on Rory McIlroy and his holy grail moment at The Open

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Rory McIlroy has been chasing the holy grail of golf at St Andrews for more than a decade. He got lost in the wind here at The Open in 2010. His mission in 2015 fell through before it began because he sustained an ankle injury while playing soccer with friends. This time his quest could have been lost in the sand or derailed between a rock and a hard place. But unlike previous attempts, this one will go according to plan.

Now, after 54 holes, McIlroy faces one of the greatest rounds of his life.

But the focus of the next 24 hours is to make sure nothing changes despite being at a remarkable point in his life. His first concern after Saturday’s end with Viktor Hovland at the helm? Find something to do Sunday morning.

On Saturday he woke up early to see his Ireland rugby team secure an historic series win over New Zealand.

“Actually, I got a little emotional when Ireland won,” he said. “It was an incredible achievement for her.”

Then he would take a nap, show up three hours before his start time, do some exercises at the gym, have 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 year of playing the sport’s oldest major championship at a time when those outside of LIV Golf McIlroy are as the voice of the sport.

We’ve been here before with McIlroy. He has finished in the top five eight times since his last major win at the 2014 PGA Championship in Valhalla. He himself pointed to missed opportunities this week – like the Masters and The Open in 2018 and again at the US Open last year. He’s bored of being the almost-man, and staying true to his processes is the key to changing that.

“It allows me to play better,” he said. “When I went all the way back to Augusta in 2011, I got out of my process. I got out of what I was doing for three days and it was a tough lesson. It was a really hard pill to swallow.

“And I went to [the U.S. Open at] Congress, and that’s what I’ve focused on all week. I sort of called it my little cocoon and just tried to stay in my little cocoon all week. And that’s what I tried to do this week.”

At St Andrews he kept his emotions under control as much as possible – apart from the occasional punch and awkward hug with his caddy. He took a moment on Saturday to look out the windows of a nearby hotel, which he knew his family would be watching.

“I’m trying 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.

This “cocoon” is the protection of process, patience and pragmatism.

“I try to play disciplined,” he said. “I try to play the percentages.”

But don’t confuse pragmatism for a minute with a lack of drama – the man was Saturday’s draw. Wherever he went, it felt like the whole of St Andrews was hanging on every putt, chip or clenched fist.

After going under 10 through 36 holes – 3 shots off the lead – he planned to “minimize the risk” ahead of Saturday. After going out in 3 under 33 everything was fine. And then he approached the 10. The hole is aptly named after Bobby Jones. He’s the man who planted the seeds of St Andrews’ importance in the world of golf, saying that if a player wants true fulfillment he must win The Open here – leading to McIlroy’s “Holy Grail” comment at the beginning of the week led. But when he launched a 334-yard drive down the fairway, he fell right into the Old Course trap.

Of the 112 bunkers here, this one before the 10th green is less notorious, but when you see a player flying across the course you worry that the slightest mistake could result in a nosedive. But a patient McIlroy parried the shot twice as he navigated the course’s claustrophobia, with Cameron Young and Cameron Smith both teeing off from the nearby ninth tee. On the third approach, and the third time the roar of the crowd died down, McIlroy blasted to the front of the green and it rolled into the hole for an eagle, triggering a roar on par with anything we’ve heard this week could.

That was the box office moment, but there were equally important shots in this round that may not be highlight reels, but are the building blocks for big charges. McIlroy said after his first round he’s trying to make the “fiddly” side of the sport his “strength” this week – and he’s going to have to produce all sorts of golf contortions and nuances to move this round in the right direction.

The first instance was on the 11th with his tricky 10-foot putt to save par, which also received a fist pump. 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 found himself sandwiched between a rock and a hard spot when his second shot landed about a foot from the wall to the right of the green. He got away with a bogey, although it could have been much, much worse and the dent on his lap would have been much bigger.

McIlroy arrived at St. Andrews as a favorite for the Claret Jug after winning two PGA titles at the CJ Cup and the Canadian Open that year. But his title shots were one of several narratives here, few bigger than Tiger Woods. Woods and McIlroy have become close friends. Before arriving in St Andrews, the two played Ballybunion in Ireland. McIlroy said earlier in the week he expects Woods to play the full four days here. As McIlroy waited on Friday as part of the 45th grouping at the first hole, he instead saw the 19th grouping go up the 18th. Justin Thomas, waiting for the tee shot in the group behind McIlroy, 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 buddies tilting their caps in his direction.

This moment could gain momentum over the next few years and become the fortuitous moment when two careers cross – one handing over the responsibility of pushing the sport to the other. But McIlroy only let the emotion of the moment flash through him for a millisecond.

“It was cool to be on that fairway when that happened,” he said. “But I concentrated on my start to the round.”

It went back to the task at hand.

Sunday offers him a chance to end the eight-year wait for another McIlroy major. But he’s not drawing on experiences from which he’s previously made mistakes when he was in the mix; Instead, he plays golf until he runs out of holes. There are positive signs for McIlroy. This is the sixth time he has held the lead after 54 holes in a major. He won four of the five previous instances. And this is now the first time since 2014 and that triumph at Valhalla that he has led at a major after 54 holes.

“I will not take anything for granted,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have any experience to draw from.

“Just like being here and I did it. But nothing comes for free and I have to go out there and earn it like I’ve earned everything else in my career.”

It has been 32 years since the St Andrews Open had a British winner when Nick Faldo won in 1990. Woods made his Open debut here five years after Faldo’s win, winning in 2000 and 2005. This year’s championship offers McIlroy a career-affirming opportunity.

But most of all, it would give McIlroy peace.

He didn’t take off his cap as he walked across the Swilcan Bridge on Saturday. It was no time to celebrate. He doesn’t have a hand on the Claret Jug yet, let alone two. Until he raises his Holy Grail there in the mid-18th on Sunday, he will think of nothing but the next shot and staying in his cocoon.

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