ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Rory McIlroy remembers all nine rounds of golf he’s played at the Old Course.
“Yeah,” McIlroy will say if you ask him, “69, 69, 67, 68, 67, 68, 65, 69, 63.”
The first six scores were shot as an amateur, the next two as a pro. The last came on a calm Thursday at the British Open, where he flirted with the best round in a major before tying the mark with a nine-under-par 63 that turned the conversation away from John Daly and Tiger Woods.
The 21-year-old McIlroy was on the most dangerous hole on the property — the 17th, with its blind tee shot and cavernous Road Hole bunker — when he says he let his mind drift to the magic number of 62, the same score McIlroy carded on Sunday when he won at Quail Hollow in May. A score of two under over the final two holes would have brought him there. McIlroy hit a laser iron approach to 4 feet on 17, but he slid the birdie putt past the hole.
“It sort of went through my mind that 62 would have been the lowest round in a major,” said McIlroy, who is from Northern Ireland. “That’s probably why I missed the putt.”
A closing birdie from 3 feet gave him a memorable round nonetheless, not to mention the look of a player whose moment is arriving, if it has not already come.
If golf is often best served in pairs (Arnie and Jack, Tiger and Phil), there is a drumbeat building for Tiger and Rory (Woods shot 67 on Thursday). They missed out on a duel at the 2009 WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship when Woods lost to Tim Clark in the second round, but you can’t help but picture a future Sunday in a major or Ryder Cup.
“Do you reckon you can chase Rory down?” a local reporter asked Woods.
See? It’s already started.
Woods reminded the reporter that “we’ve got three more rounds,” which was the polite way of saying you better believe it.
We already know Tiger can win this week. He’s done it twice before at St. Andrews and would play every major here if he could. But McIlroy’s affection for St. Andrews is similarly deep, if not as old.
“I love St. Andrews in general,” McIlroy said. “I’m coming in here with a lot of great memories. I’ve played well [around] here before. It just fits my eye really well. The second shots seem to set up well for me.”
Can McIlroy take home a claret jug this week? In this era of twenty-somethings winning regularly, it would be foolish to think he couldn’t.