The roar was loud enough to travel across the Tay Estuary. McIlroy, a born thespian, delivered an extravagant fist-pump. Even Scottie Scheffler, preparing to drive on the 11th tee, was compelled to put his club down and applaud. The scene encapsulated the spirit of McIlroy, a player who, through a mixture of technical mastery and overt emotion, electrifies any tournament he enters.
“It was huge,” McIlroy reflected. “The pin was perched up on a little crown, and I was trying to get it somewhat close. Anything inside 10 feet, I felt, was going to be a really good shot. It just came out perfectly. It was luck that it went in the hole, but you need a little bit of luck every now and again, especially in these big tournaments.”
Vast St Andrews galleries found themselves gripped by his every move. There was a reason why McIlroy’s tip of the cap to a departing Tiger Woods had seemed like a passing of the flame: the four-time major champion is, in his idol’s absence from him, the one player from whom pure theater is guaranteed.
Take this year’s Masters, where he signed off his closing 64 in trademark style, splashing out from a greenside bunker and celebrating deliriously as the ball tracked into the hole.
There is one crucial difference, though, between the two bunker shots that have defined 2022 for McIlroy at the majors. At Augusta, he was always pursuing a forlorn hope of reining in a hard-charging Scheffler. But the mood on the Old Course has been palpably different all week, the crowds sensing that this was his finest chance yet of ending an eight-year wait for his fifth major title.
After all, he had begun this third round on 10 under par. The two previous times that he has reached double digits in red numbers at a major, at the 2011 US Open and the 2014 Open, he has gone on to win.
Under suffocating pressure here at St Andrews, he has appeared every inch a champion-in-waiting. His miraculous flourish from the bunker at the 10th marked his first visit to the sand all tournament.