Rory McIlroy is having a big day at the British Open. Viktor Hovland follows.

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland. Standing in one of the 112 bunkers at the Old Course on Saturday, Rory McIlroy was on the brink of what he wanted: at the top of the British Open leaderboard.

His hit on the 10th hole caused trouble, but not serious problems, as he came to a stop in the middle of a sand trap protecting the front of the green.

McIlroy had room to free-turn, and his second shot flew over the edge of the bunker, bounced three times, and then rolled a few more feet into the Eagle’s bowl.

A masterstroke for 27 yards gave McIlroy a one-punch advantage over Victor Hovland, his playmate.

“It was a skill to get it somewhere close,” McIlroy said. “But it was luck that he hit the hole. Every once in a while you need a bit of luck, especially in big tournaments like this. And that was a nice bonus.”

It was the sort of pleasant surprise that can make the difference between winning or losing a major championship, and Hovland got his own bonus on Friday when he cleared out a 139-yard rough for the Eagle on a par-4 15th.

But Hovland, a 24-year-old Norwegian who excelled at Oklahoma State before turning pro in 2019, didn’t let McIlroy enjoy the lead for long. He quickly ran a McIlroy birdie on the 10th, leaving them both 15 under par, and then they fought in the last nine on the most historic golf course.

Northern Ireland’s McIlroy was certainly the crowd’s favourite, but Hovland, a dynamic personality, didn’t shy away from the challenge. They finished with a matching 66 rounds and a 16 under par lead, giving them four shots ahead. chase pack led by American Cameron Young and Australian Cameron Smith, who have less than 12 points on Sunday.

Of the top four men on the leaderboard, only the 33-year-old McIlroy is already a major champion, but the last of his four victories came in 2014 when he won the British Open at Royal Liverpool.

Since then, he has experienced many disappointing Sundays.

“You are not given anything and I have to go and earn it, just like I have earned everything else in my career,” he said.

Other major champions are also within reach. Scotty Sheffler, an American who won the Masters in April and ranked #11 in the world, under 11, shares with Kim Si Woo of South Korea. Dustin Johnson, a two-time US major tournament winner who recently jumped on the breakaway LIV Golf seriesis alone at the age of 10 after hopping 71 on Saturday.

Matt Fitzpatrick, English who won the US Open this yearis under the age of 9 along with Adam Scott, 2013 Masters champion, and Tommy Fleetwood.

But if McIlroy and Hovland continue to shine under pressure, as they did on Saturday, they may not give the Pack a chance to close the gap.

“A lot is possible,” Hovland said. “In these conditions and with this arrangement of pins, you can play well and shoot with equal par, and then that also attracts a lot of other guys.”

The weather is forecast to remain relatively favorable on Sunday, with moderate winds and temperatures in the mid-70s. This could mean the lower grades that were the rule in St. Louis. Andrews in this 150th open championship.

Several players put on quite a show on Saturday, including Shane Lowry, who folded for consecutive 9 and 10 heads; and Kevin Kisner, who was narrowly among the winners but had the best round of the day: 7 points under par 65, leaving him in 13th place.

“It’s just a fun place to walk around and play golf, and when the hit is on it makes it even more enjoyable,” Kisner said.

It seemed like a fitting end to a good day at many golf courses, but success at the Old Course is still of particular importance, even when the best golfers are making headway.

McIlroy is well aware of what Sunday’s victory will mean for him and his audience – perhaps too aware.

“I love that I got so much support,” he said. “But at the same time, I just need to stay in my own little world tomorrow and just play a good round of golf, and hopefully that’s enough.”

It wasn’t enough to get rid of Hovland in the third round. Both started the day in the under-10 group and in the penultimate group ahead of second round leader Smith and first round leader Young.

Hovland set the pace early, hitting four birdies in a row, starting with a 38-foot birdie on 3 and a 42-foot birdie on 4. But McIlroy made his own birdies on ##. 5, 6 and 9 before his sand eagle at no. 1. 10 and another bird at no. 15, which put him back in direct lead.

But he couldn’t hold on as Hovland passed him in 17th place for parity while McIlroy had to settle for horror.

At 18, they ended the memorable round the same way they started, with draws and in high spirits.

“We kind of fed off each other and had a good run the last few holes,” McIlroy said.

It was pure competition, not a dark fight. For most of the round there were punches, smiles and a lot of chatter.

“We talked about a whole bunch of things,” McIlroy said. “I was talking about shoes. He talked about what he had been doing the last couple of weeks. He returned home to Norway. After that, he returns to Norway. Just kept it nice and free.”

McIlroy may be nine years older, but he and Hovland have developed a good relationship after playing (and losing) on ​​the same Ryder Cup team in Europe last year. But although they will be together again on Sunday, they are no longer teammates.

McIlroy is trying to end an eight-year drought with a win in the top Open spot. Hovland is trying to become the first Norwegian to win a major.

“It’s pretty crazy for where I grew up,” Hovland said. “I have to pinch myself, but that doesn’t mean I’ll hold back tomorrow.”