By Jerry Briggs
For The JB Replay
Former Ryder Cup teammates Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland took charge on Saturday at the 150th Open Championship, finishing their third rounds with sizzling 66s on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland.
They’ll try to match the intensity on Sunday, with the coveted Claret Jug trophy and a major championship hanging in the balance. Both will enter the final 18 holes of the tournament tied for first at 16 under par.
Still clinging to championship hopes, Cameron Young and Cameron Smith (both -12) remain in the title picture, as do Scottie Scheffler and Si Woo Kim (-11).
Because of McIlroy and Hovland’s position atop the leaderboard, both will be paired together, just as they were on a memorable Saturday.
“It’s nice I get to play with Viktor again,” McIlroy told NBC news. “It’s a comfortable pairing for both of us, and I’m looking forward to that. But, yeah, I’ve kind of been knocking on the door for awhile (in major championships).”
The pressure would seem to be more pronounced for McIlroy, 33, a legendary name in the game from Northern Ireland, who is playing in front of a crowd that has been chanting for him all week.
Hovland, 25, a native of Norway who played at Oklahoma State University, is trying to win his first major.
This would seem to give the edge to McIlroy, who has been in pressure situations more often.
Then again, he hasn’t won in one of golf’s four majors since 2014 when he claimed titles at both The Open, formerly known as the British Open, and the PGA.
“This is the best chance I’ve had in a long time,” McIlroy said on NBC’s afternoon telecast. “I just need to stay in my own little world for one more day and hopefully I can play the sort of golf that’s good enough to win.”
A teammate of Hovland on the 2021 European Ryder Cup team, McIlroy authored the shot of the day. It came after he made a potentially disastrous mistake and sent a ball into a green-side bunker.
But from the sand, McIlroy blasted out brilliantly with a shot that took a few bounces on the green and rolled into the cup for eagle.
“As soon as I hit the bunker shot I knew it was going to be close,” McIlroy said. “I didn’t imagine it was going to go in. Sometimes you need little bits of luck like that to go on and win these types of tournaments.
“That was a real bonus. I played well from there on in. Definitely the highlight of the day.”
Hovland started to get extremely hot on the front nine when he birdied four holes in a row. But after McIlroy seized momentum with the eagle on 10, the former Big 12 Player of the Year at Oklahoma State responded with a birdie on the same hole to tie.
Playing with confidence and feeding off the crowd, McIlroy kept applying pressure, taking a one-shot lead with another birdie on No. 14.
“It kind of felt like match play,” Hovland told NBC. “I didn’t try to think of it that way. You know, regardless of whether he made his putt or missed his putt.
“That wasn’t going to change what I was doing. I knew I just needed to play good golf and I was really happy that I was able to shoot a bogey-free round today.”
McIlroy made his biggest mistake of the day on No. 17, the famous road hole, when he hooked into the rough off the tee.
From there, he hit a ball that bounced on the fairway, and kept bouncing until it hit a wall short and way to the right of the green.
While Hovland made par, McIlroy notched his only bogey of the day to fall back into a tie for first.
On No. 18, it stayed tied way as both birdied to put them at six under for the day. Hovland vowed that he’d take an aggressive approach to the last round.
“I’m going up against one of the best players in the world,” he said. “Certainly not going to hold back, because I know he’s definitely not. I’ll probably need to play more like I did today and, yeah, hopefully that gets the job done.”