McIlroy holed a bunker shot for eagle on the 10th hole that he described as part skill and part luck, but it was pure magic. He showed discipline to know when to aim away from the flag, and to take bogey when he was stuck between a wall and a road behind the 17th green.
McIlroy now shares the stage at the home of golf with Viktor Hovland, the emerging Norwegian star who was every bit as good in making birdies and avoiding the blunders that cost so many other potential contenders.
Both made birdie on the final hole for a 6-under 66. No one else was closer than four shots. They have the same score at 16-under 200, though the support is one-sided.
“They’re chanting his name out there. I think he’s definitely a crowd favorite,” Masters champion Scottie Scheffler said. “How can you not root for Rory?”
“I think it’s appreciating the moment as well and appreciating the fact that it’s unbelievably cool to have a chance to win The Open at St Andrews,” McIlroy said. “It’s what dreams are made of. And I’m going to try to make a dream come true tomorrow.”
Hovland, already with six victories worldwide in his four years since leaving Oklahoma State as a U.S. Amateur champion, could appreciate the support for McIlroy and all he has done. He played mistake-free and sounded as though he were up for the task.
“I’m going against one of the best players in the world and I’m certainly not going to hold back, because he’s certainly not,” Hovland said.
It wasn’t a two-man race, even if it felt that way as the Old Course emptied and bagpipes began to skirl at the end of the day.
Cameron Smith, who started with a two-shot lead, took double bogey on the 13th hole when he tried a bold play with his feet in a pot bunker. Cameron Young went over the 16th green and then back down the other side for a double bogey on the 16th hole.
They were four shots behind, still in the game. Two-time major champion Dustin Johnson, the best candidate from the Saudi-funded LIV Golf league to claim this major, putted across the green and into a bunker for one of three bogeys on the back nine. He fell six shots behind.
McIlroy and Hovland had no such trouble.
Hovland holed a pair of 40-foot putts on his way to four straight birdies on the front nine to seize the lead. McIlroy finally caught him by holing out from a pot bunker some 80 feet away for eagle on the 10th hole, setting off a roar that could be heard all the way back at the Royal & Ancient clubhouse.
McIlroy only a day earlier tipped his cap to Woods as he started his second round and Woods was on his way to missing the cut, crossing the Swilcan Bridge for what might have been last time. The R&A set the tee times that way so they would pass each other.
Woods stands alone in driving the sport, though McIlroy is the most popular worldwide, and it sounded like that — on the first tee when McIlroy was introduced, for every birdie, and when he took the lead for the first time with a birdie on the 14th.
“I love that I’ve got so much support,” McIlroy said. “But at the same time, I need to keep in my own little world and try to play a good round of golf. Hopefully, that’s enough.”
His lone mistake was coming out of the left rough and over the 17th green, across the road and near the stone wall. He played a safe pitch onto the green and two-putted for bogey.
Hovland, bogey-free for the round, showed off some magic of his own on the 17th by putting off the dirt path just short of the road, up the hill to about 5 feet for a par.
“I’ve never been in a bigger spot in my career,” Hovland said. He sounded up to the task, and the popular Norwegian also saw — and heard — what he will be up against Sunday.
“I get a couple in there,” he said of the cheers so heavily slanted toward McIlroy. “I’m probably an underdog, but I don’t mind that at all. Hopefully, we can push ourselves tomorrow.”
Smith missed a short birdie chance on the 18th and had a 73. His biggest mistake was not getting the ball back in play on the 13th, instead trying to advance the ball and getting into tough spots. He also three-putted from 30 feet to start his round and made just two birdies.
Young, the PGA Tour rookie who finished one shot out of a playoff at the PGA Championship two months ago, had a 71.
Scheffler was lurking after a 69. He missed a 10-foot birdie chance on the 16th and then three-putted the 17th for a bogey. Scheffler, who finished one shot behind in the U.S. Open, had a 69 and was five back along with Si Woo Kim (67).
Johnson also within three shots until a bogey on the 13th and another on the par-5 14th, where his long eagle putt raced up a hill, across the green and into a pot bunker. Instead of birdie, he had to scramble for bogey. He dropped two more shots coming in for a 71 and was six behind.
McIlroy last won a major in 2014 at the PGA Championship at Valhalla. He would love nothing more than to win at the home of golf, on the Old Course where Jack Nicklaus once said a player’s career would not be complete without winning a claret jug at St. Andrews.