ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – It was past 8 pm as Rory McIlroy made the eastward turn toward St. Andrews’ final hole, walking out of the shadows cast by the Old Course Hotel and toward an expanse of grass bathed in the golden light of a summer’s dusk . He’d just made an unlikely birdie on the Old Course’s most penal hole, the one that forces players to overcome both a blind tee shot lined with OB and an approach shot over a sand-filled pit.
Playing so late into the evening is a unique aspect of The Open, and McIlroy has had some memorable moments among the overserved Open galleries following him on a Friday night. Three years ago, his countrymen tried to cheer him to the weekend in the Open’s return to Northern Ireland, a tournament whose significance extended far beyond golf. The outpouring of love from a country where he hadn’t resided for years nearly brought him to tears.
Similar roars could be heard Friday in St. Andrews. They chanted McIlroy’s name and stomped their feet in the grandstands behind the 17th green after he made his 25-foot birdie putt. McIlroy was in contention this time, though, just three shots off the lead.
It’s hard to not get romantic during times like these, as the setting sun performed alchemy on these ancient stone buildings, turning them from gray to gold. The grandstands couldn’t fit all the interested observers who wanted to see him finish his round. They packed the road that runs down the right side of the 18th hole, watched from rooftop balconies and open windows.
McIlroy couldn’t author the perfect finish for the partisan crowd, making par on the pedestrian finishing hole, but he still has two more rounds to author a story befitting golf’s spiritual home. Five hours earlier, McIlroy had doffed his cap in a show of respect directed at Tiger Woods as Woods walked down St. Andrews’ finishing hole for what may be the final time.
Only Augusta National has played a role in Woods’ career that can rival the importance of St. Andrews to his legacy. He won twice here by a combined 13 shots, completing the career Grand Slam with his 2000 victory. Woods calls St. Andrews his favorite course in the world.
Players compete for myriad reasons, but only a select few have the privilege of playing for legacy. They compete with the knowledge that their accomplishments will be remembered for generations, serving as inspiration and worthy of enshrinement. Players must win multiple majors and dozens of TOUR titles to be a member of this class.
Only Woods, when his body allows him to play, competes with a greater awareness of his lasting impact than McIlroy. And so it would be fitting if McIlroy, two days after showing deference to the greatest player in this year’s Open, were to walk down St. Andrews’ 18th hole to a similar reception.
“You could feel the warmth and you could feel the people from both sides,” Woods said. Friday’s raucous roars would simply serve as an appetizer for the reception that McIlroy would receive with a win Sunday, following the footsteps of European legends like Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo in crossing the Swilcan Bridge en route to lifting the Claret Jug.
Bobby Jones said that a player must win at St. Andrews to truly be considered great. There’s a bit of hyperbole to that statement. Players get so few opportunities to play an Open at St. Andrews that many of the best players in the game’s history lack that line item in their otherwise gilded resumes.
Greatness is McIlroy’s lone concern at this point in his career. At 33, he’s already a Hall of Famer. Majors are the only metric by which his career will be judged. He has four, but it’s been eight years since his last one. He still has time to win more than any other European. Faldo holds the modern record with six, while Harry Vardon won seven before World War I.
After shooting 66-68 this week, McIlroy will start the second half of The 150th Open in third place, three shots behind leader Cameron Smith (67-64) and one back of TOUR rookie Cameron Young (64-69). McIlroy is tied with Viktor Hovland and they’re one ahead of Dustin Johnson. Scottie Scheffler, the man who sits atop the world ranking and FedExCup standings, lurks at 8 under.
Earlier this week, McIlroy said the Old Course is playing “fiddly.” Scores may be low, and rounds long, because the modern game may be more than the Old Course can handle but it has put up an admirable fight and produced a hearty list of contenders because it only allows players who can produce a variety of shots to succeed. McIlroy said he isn’t concerned with the names who stand atop major leaderboards, even if they are THE PLAYERS champion, a two-time major winner, the world No. 1 or some of the game’s rising stars.
“You just look at where you are on the leaderboard,” McIlroy said. “It doesn’t matter what name is beside the 13 under.”
That may be true for McIlroy, who is in the heat of competition, but the quality of this leaderboard is fitting for a course and tournament that is so important to the game’s history.
Woods’ walk down 18 on Friday will be remembered for years if it is indeed the close of his career at St. Andrews. McIlroy’s same steps on Sunday may be memorable, as well. Legacies are made at St. Andrews.