Rory McIlroy takes long and winding Open road but needs leaders to falter | The Open

It feels like Rory McIlroy has been doing this to us for practically his whole career. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and victory from defeat – like someone who gives you butterflies on a first date and then doesn’t text back, leaving us tossing and turning in our sleep; sweating, ponderous, infuriated.

But that is part of the charm, the contract we all unwittingly sign when following somebody like McIlroy. At last year’s Open Championship at St Andrews, he held a joint four-shot lead over the rest of the field after the third round, before falling away as Cameron Smith surged to claim the Claret Jug. Last weekend at the Scottish Open, McIlroy finished birdie-birdie after two outrageous approaches on the 17th and 18th to claim the £1.2m prize from under the nose of home favourite Bob MacIntyre, with McIlroy calling the latter shot “one of the best of my career”. He is frustrating and thrilling in equal measure, but never boring.

On moving day McIlroy straddled both of these guises on Saturday at Royal Liverpool, as the 34-year-old initially rocketed to within touching distance of the Open’s leaders on the front nine, before stuttering on his way back to the clubhouse. McIlroy goes into Sunday three under par after a 69.

The primary issue here for McIlroy (and indeed the rest of the field) isn’t the dodgy weather. It’s not injury, or LIV, or a lack of luck and mental fortitude, or the weight of history and expectation. McIlroy’s biggest obstacles are his cold putter and a bloke called Brian Harman, who is playing out of his skin. The American is utterly deserving of his Open lead. Harman will be a worthy champion if he can hold his nerve in his final round on Sunday, with Jon Rahm, Cameron Young, Jason Day and Viktor Hovland all in an elite chasing pack.

Harman had started Saturday at 10 under par, five shots clear of his nearest overnight challenger, Tommy Fleetwood, and nine shots clear of McIlroy. To put the size of the task for the chasing pack into context, nobody has had a bigger 36-hole lead at the Open since the second world war.

McIlroy did not seem overawed by the challenge on Friday night. “Right now it’s not quite out of my hands,” he said. “I think if I can get to three, four, five under par going into Sunday, I’ll have a really good chance.” Hope is an intoxicating thing.

Rory McIlroy plays his third shot on the 15th on Saturday
Rory McIlroy plays his third shot on the 15th on Saturday. Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

McIlroy bounced on to the first tee with all the bluster of the Wirral coast and smoked a driver to the middle of the fairway like it was the easiest thing in the world, setting up an opening birdie. No fist pump, no smile, just a polite acknowledgment of the delirious crowd. The perfect start.

Most have played the second hole conservatively this week, taking an iron off the tee, nurdling their way around the 458-yard par four. Here, McIlroy pumped his driver past the bunkers to the fairway beyond. Another flawless wedge later, McIlroy had another birdie look. Missed. But he had shown his intent, and there was not a single hole on the front nine where he didn’t have a birdie opportunity. He reached the turn in 32, four under par.

A penny for Harman’s thoughts at 3.25pm as he strolled out from the clubhouse, unsure whether to glance at the Claret Jug – sitting on a plinth atop the first tee encased in glass – or to the shifting leaderboard. Bogey at the 1st for Harman and another at the 4th meant the 36-year-old slipped back towards the chasing pack. The hunter had become the hunted.

But then Harman stabilised, clawing himself back to 10 under par at the turn. The closest McIlroy got to Harman was five shots and a bogey for the Northern Irishman at the 12th stalled his progress. Missed birdie opportunities at the 14th, the very scoreable par-five 15th, the tricky 17th and the 18th kept McIlroy back in the pack. He finished with a whimper, a far cry from the sparkle of the first few holes.

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Hoylake is eight miles from Liverpool, and McIlroy is sporting some psychedelic Beatles-inspired shoes, complete with rather philosophical messages: “live to play” inscribed on his right boot and “play to live” on his left.

He will have to play the round of his life on Sunday and hope for Harman to fall to some Hoylake harm if he has any chance of repeating his last major triumph here in 2014.

This now feels unlikely, but not impossible. Hope is an intoxicating thing.