ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Cheers from every corner of the Old Course that belonged to Tiger Woods for two days at St. Andrews switched over to Rory McIlroy in the British Open, and he certainly did his part to give the crowds what they came to see Saturday.
McIlroy holed a bunker shot for an eagle on the 10th hole that he described as part skill and part luck, but it was pure magic. He also 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.
The 33-year-old from Northern Ireland with the 2014 British Open among his four major titles 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.
Each of the co-leaders made a birdie on the final hole for a 6-under-par 66. No one else was closer than four shots. They have the same score at 16-under 200, though the fan support is squarely in McIlroy's corner.
"They're chanting his name out there. I think he's definitely a crowd favorite," said reigning Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, who holds the No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking that belonged to McIlroy for multiple stints from 2012 to 2015 and again for five months in 2020.
"How can you not root for Rory?"
McIlroy, currently No. 2, is one round away from ending eight long years without a major tournament victory. He wants to stay in his world without ignoring the support raining down on him.
"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," said McIlroy, who lifted the claret jug at Royal Liverpool eight years ago. "It's what dreams are made of. And I'm going to try to make a dream come true tomorrow."
The 24-year-old 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 avoided bogeys Saturday and sounded as though he were up for the task ahead on Sunday.
"I'm going against one of the best players in the world," the ninth-ranked Hovland said, "and I'm certainly not going to hold back, because he's certainly not."
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.
Australia's Cameron Smith (73), who held a two-shot lead after 36 holes, took a double bogey on the 13th hole when he tried a bold play with his feet in a pot bunker. First-round leader Cameron Young (71) went over the 16th green and then back down the other side for a double bogey on the 16th hole.
And yet they were tied for third, four shots behind and still in the game. Two-time major champion Dustin Johnson, the best candidate from the Saudi-funded LIV Golf league to win this major, putted across the green and into a bunker for one of three bogeys on the back nine. He fell six shots behind with a 71, alone in seventh as Scheffler (69) and South Korea's Si Woo Kim (67) sat fifth at 11 under.
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 an 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 the 15-time major champ was on his way to missing the cut, crossing the Swilcan Bridge for what might have been the last time as a competitor. 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.
"Every part of my game has felt good this week," said McIlroy, whose most recent major victory was the 2014 PGA Championship. "I just need to keep it going for one more day."
Hovland showed off some magic of his own on the same hole by putting off the dirt path just short of the road, up the hill to about five feet for a par.
"I've never been in a bigger spot in my career," Hovland said.
As for the cheers being so heavily slanted toward McIlroy, Hovland said: "I get a couple in there. I'm probably an underdog, but I don't mind that at all. Hopefully, we can push ourselves tomorrow."