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Rory’s romp, DJ’s disaster, Old Course oddness: 5 things we learned on Saturday at St. Andrews

rory fist pumps open championship

Don’t be fooled by parchment-brown fairways and baked-out greens, the ground underneath St. Andrews on Saturday afternoon was as soft as a marshmallow. How else could you explain moving day at the 150th Open, where the very bedrock of the tournament shifted with every breeze?

Triumph and disaster greeted shot after shot for the better part of 6 hours on Saturday afternoon at the Old Course, forming a moving day unlike many in recent memory. St. Andrews would seem to be the origin of that old saying about the best golf courses producing the best championships, even if the winning score is trending to be well over 20 under.

At the 54-hole mark, the list of those in contention at the home of golf could be a mirror image of the Official World Golf Ranking. There’s something for everyone on this leaderboard: the young guns (Scheffler and Hovland), the two Cams (Smith and Young), the Americans (Spieth and Cantlay), the Brits (Fitzpatrick and Fleetwood), and of course, there’s the leader.

It’s hard to overstate where things stand for Rory McIlroy, who enters Sunday’s final round on the precipice of a career-defining victory at the Old Course. McIlroy was brilliant on Saturday afternoon in a 6-under 66 performance that moved him into a tie for the lead with Hovland. He carried the weight of expectation with ease, carding his only bogey of the day on the Road Hole 17th, which Kevin Kisner warned Saturday morning was playing “as a par-5.”

On Sunday, he’ll play in the final pairing with the opportunity to finally put the demons of the last eight years to bed. But that’s a conversation for tomorrow. For today, we’re focused on the moment of the tournament — Rory’s bunker shot on No. 10 — which is where we’ll lead off today’s Five Things.

5 Things we learned on Saturday at the Open Championship

1. The moment of the tournament

Whatever happens to Rory on Sunday at St. Andrews, it’ll be difficult for him to top the scene at the 10th on Saturday, when McIlroy holed out for eagle from the face of a pot punker. The hole is a natural amphitheater — tucked into a narrow stretch with several grandstands — and the ovation that greeted McIlroy’s chip-in damn-near blew a new pot bunker into the earth near the 10th green.

The eagle moved Rory into the lead, a spot he didn’t relinquish for the rest of the day.

“It doesn’t really look that tricky from the TV, but as soon as I hit it I knew it was going to be close,” he said afterward. “I didn’t imagine it was going to go in. Sometimes you need little bits of luck like that to go on and win tournaments like this.”

Should McIlroy go on and win, it’ll be his first major championship victory since the 2014 Open Championship. At the U.S. Open, he admitted that given the layoff, winning his next major could be equally as hard as his first. But if there were ever a time for The Return, it’d be on Sunday at the 150th Open.

2. Dustin Johnson’s disaster

It is hard to say precisely what went wrong for Dustin Johnson on Saturday at the Open, but it is not difficult to say precisely when it all went it wrong. That would be on the par-5 14th — a hole that played close to a stroke under par on Saturday afternoon.

Johnson blew his second shot on the 14th long, leaving himself with a short-sided chip into a massive green. That went long, too, rolling off the front of the putting surface and into a bunker. Evidently rattled by his misfortune, it took the former World No. 1 a chip and two putts to find the bottom of the hole from just a few yards away. He walked away from the 14th with only a bogey, but the overwhelming majority of the leaders making birdie on the hole, it was more like a double. He enters Sunday at 10 under, six shots back of the leaders.

3. Viktor’s long game

Viktor Hovland is playing the long game at the Open Championship, and that is to say he is avoiding his short game at all costs. Hovland, who has blended being golf’s worst short game player and best everything-elser to mixed success over the last 18 months, has taken the apparent strategy of putting his wedges away altogether around the greens at the Old Course. And … it’s worked!

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Hovland has averaged just 29 putts per round over his first two rounds at the Open, but his efforts from off the green have been equally as important. On the 17th hole on Saturday, Hovland putted from a gravel path, through a patch of rough and up to within 5 feet of the hole. From the green, he used the same weapon to drain his par putt for good measure.

Whether that strategy will help him if he were to, say, hit his approach into the Shell Bunker with the lead Sunday remains to be seen. But it’s working for right now, and that’s enough to leave us impressed.

4. Lowry makes history

It ain’t easy to make history at a place as old and storied as the Old Course, but that’s precisely what Shane Lowry did on Saturday, when the 2019 Open Champ chipped-in for eagle on consecutive holes. According to stats guru Justin Ray, Lowry’s effort was the first time in 21 years that a player made back-to-back eagles at the Open, and the only time in at least the last 25 years in which a player made back-to-back eagles on par-4s in a major.

Take that for data.

5. Old Course oddities

Saturday was an odd day at the Old Course. Scores were decidedly low. Birdies were everywhere. The two leaders shot a combined 12 under. And yet there were grumblings among some players that the course had been tricked-up in order to keep scores elevated.

“I’ll be honest, I’m not really a fan,” Matt Fitzpatrick offered. “I’ve heard it on commentary all week. You can hit good shots and get bad bounces. And you can hit bad shots and get good bounces. I felt, for the first seven holes, I didn’t really miss a shot. I’m walking off 7th green and I’m plus-1. It’s tough to take. It’s tough to stay patient.”

In the U.S. Open champ’s eyes, St. Andrews isn’t only a test of execution, it’s a test of luck.

“I said earlier in the week that it’s not my favorite golf course to play,” Fitpatrick added. “But I think, obviously, with how firm it is, they obviously exaggerate some of the slopes and stuff as well. You see where the pins are this week. A lot of them are incredibly tucked, just to try and protect it as much as possible.”

Such is life in links golf, whether Fitzpatrick likes it or not. The good news? On Sunday, he’ll tee off a little while before the leaders with the chance to make a few early birdies and see if he can’t force the leaders into some misfortune of their own.

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