Will impressive McIlroy be R&A’s St Andrews saviour?

Venue: St Andrews, Scotland Dates: 14-17 July
Coverage: BBC TV, radio and online, on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Sounds, BBC Sport website and the BBC Sport mobile app. Full coverage details.

As Rory McIlroy was walking down the first hole of the St Andrews Old Course a little after 10:00 on Thursday, a dapper – not to mention impossibly brave – man in pink polka-dot plus-fours hollered out his support for the Northern Irishman.

“Go get it, Rory!” he shouted. And, Lord, how McIlroy went and got it.

On a fast and fiery track, his seven-birdie, one-bogey day carried on a surreal trend. This was his fifth round in a St Andrews Open and he’s yet to shoot in the 70s. In 2010, he went 63, 80, 69, 68 and now there’s a sumptuous, almost leisurely, six-under 66 to throw into the mix.

This was his best start to an Open since 2014, when he shot 66 on Thursday at Hoylake and went on to win on Sunday.

Here he hit monster drives – a wind-assisted 412-yarder down the 14th. He nailed battleship putts – a 55-footer on the first for birdie. In pretty much everything he did, he had control. Rarely was he in any danger.

His driving was exceptional. His putting was unerring. When faced with 80 and 90-footers across vast surfaces, he two-putted with ease and got out of there with birdies and pars. It was deeply impressive.

“There are little parts of the round that shows you where you’re at with everything mentally, physically, and I came through all those little tests today unscathed and I’m really proud of that,” he said. “It might have looked easy, but there’s certain parts of the round that are challenging.

“It’s the fiddliest Open that I’ve played. It’s the only way I can really describe it. As the tournament progresses, you’re going to get some funny bounces and it’s going to test your patience at times. Fiddly hasn’t really been my forte over the years, but I’m hopefully going to make it my forte this week.”

‘McIlroy is next best for R&A behind Woods’

This was the Rory that not just Rory fans wanted to see, but, most probably, that the R&A wanted to see, too. This being the 150th Open, they must be craving a champion golfer that befits that history, now more than ever.

No disrespect to overnight leader Cameron Young but he’s not cutting it. Neither is Cam Smith or Kurt Kitayama or Brad Kennedy, all high up the leaderboard, all stellar performers on Thursday.

Those same officials might be saying quiet novenas that it’s not one of the others hovering in the rarefied air of top-10 status after the opening round – the dreaded LIV set. Lee Westwood is up there, Ian Poulter is in the mix, Bryson DeChambeau is close, and so is Talor Gooch. They’re not the only ones.

For the 150th Open, the R&A will be dreaming of a name to match and the presence of the minted mavericks so close to the top, even though there’s a world a golf yet to play, will be uncomfortable to golf’s establishment.

A Tiger would be their nirvana, but that’s not happening. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm and others would be wholly acceptable, but McIlroy is the next best thing behind Woods. He’s the kind of class act and clean-cut ambassador they want to see with that Claret Jug. And he can win. No doubt about it.

It might have taken a wearying five hours 44 minutes to complete – a staple frustration of life at a St Andrews Open with its gargantuan double green and its interminable waits on tees and fairways – but it was a joy.

Remaining serene in the gridlock is a challenge in itself and it’s one that McIlroy met with a calmness that made you wonder – not the first time, it has to be said – if this is the week that his eight-year wait for another major comes to an end.

Eight years. For a player blessed with every weapon required, it’s a ridiculous length of time. Twenty-three different golfers have won a major since McIlroy won the US PGA Championship in 2014, the fourth of his haul.

Zach Johnson has won a major title since then. So has Danny Willett. So have Jimmy Walker and Gary Woodland. Francesco Molinari is a more recent major winner than the perennial contender. Woods and Phil Mickelson, glorious lights of other days, have got it done. Even Sergio Garcia, the forever nearly man, has got himself over the line more recently than McIlroy.

Had you said on that Sunday at Valhalla in 2014 that McIlroy wouldn’t win any of the next 29 major championships, people would have backed away from you with a mix of pity and fear in their eyes.

McIlroy said recently that back then he hadn’t even heard of Collin Morikawa or Rahm. A new generation has washed through. Eight different players have won the past eight majors. It’s been the narrative of McIlroy’s life for the longest time. ‘When is Rory winning another one of these things?’ has become ‘Is Rory winning another one of these things?’

“The pressure situations are a challenge for him,” said Paul McGinley, his old Ryder Cup captain.

“He’s got no Plan B to switch to when things aren’t going well,” said Nick Faldo, a man who never really needed a Plan B because his Plan A was usually so damn good.

‘The leaderboard could scarcely look better for him’

McIlroy is one of the most analysed golfers in recent history because he’s one of the most interesting and most talented we have ever seen. He’s also won pretty much everything else in those eight major-free years. A Players Championship, World Golf titles, national Opens, Fed-Ex titles, Race to Dubai crowns.

The thought of him entering a ninth year without one of the game’s most sought-after trophies is staggering. Thursday led you to believe that maybe he won’t have to.

“It never feels easy,” he said. “There were pivotal moments in the round. I hit a good putt for birdie on the eighth hole, hit it three feet by. I wasn’t really that comfortable with the second putt, but I stepped up there, committed to it. Holed a nice putt. It’s just like these little parts of the rounds that test you.

“And I feel like every time the round did that to me, I was able to come through it. The golf course is playing so, so short [on the 615-yard par-five 14th he hit driver, wedge – and his approach was long]. But it’s still tricky. It’s not as if everyone is shooting the lights out.”

McIlroy spoke of the delays out there, the game within a game. “It’s quite stop-start, but I think St Andrews is that way. There’s a lot of criss-crossing and waiting on greens to clear because of the drivable par fours. So I think, especially the first two days when it’s the full field, it’s to be expected.”

The game is good, the mind is good, the leaderboard could scarcely look any better for him. Since last tasting victory on the biggest stages, McIlroy has finished top 10 in majors on 16 occasions and top five eight times.

“I had a chance at Carnoustie in 2018,” he said. “I played in the final group with Patrick Reed in 2018 at Augusta. I was tied for the lead with nine holes to go at Torrey Pines [US Open, 2021]. I’ve had a few chances and I haven’t capitalised.”

It’s too early to say whether this is the one, but it’s not too early for his legions of fans – they’re everywhere here – to start dreaming. Another day of brilliance on Friday and the McIlroy supporters will be calling for smelling salts.

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