They stood by a clock on the 12th tee, while they waited for the group up ahead to clear the green. Viktor Hovland leaned back with his arms folded while Rory McIlroy stood more upright, a smile on his face.
The clock said it was twenty seven minutes past six but it is getting close to midnight for golf and even at St Andrews, amid so much beauty and history, everybody knows it.
McIlroy and Hovland were locked in a titanic battle at the top of the leaderboard all afternoon and as the lead switched between them and Hovland leapt ahead with some brilliant putting and McIlroy hauled him back by holing out for eagle from a greenside coffin bunker on the 10th , it felt as though this contest, pure and unrelenting, was sport at its best.
Rory McIlroy (left) and Viktor Hovland (right) lead the pack ahead of the final day on Sunday
But every tournament in golf now – particularly every Major – is laced with the great fear that the sport may not be like this for much longer and that we are coming to the end of something.
It is being ripped apart by the Saudi-backed LIV Series and its seduction of some of the best players in the world by vast signing-on fees and guaranteed prize money. The crisis is already upon it and it is going to get worse.
There are rumors that LIV will announce more big-name recruits to its ranks next week and uncertainty is everywhere. What if whoever wins The Open on Sunday is revealed as one of the next secessionists?
Imagine the blow that would strike the golfing establishment. What if the next announcement deals another blow to the Ryder Cup? LIV keeps coming in wave after wave. How much more can golf take? Are we about to enter an Asterisk Era in golf when many of the world’s best players are banned from playing in Majors because of their allegiance to LIV?
The Northern Irishman has relentlessly challenged the controversial Saudi-backed LIV tour
Are we about to enter an era when the Majors are devalued and measures of greatness are diluted and the only numbers that matter are how much you got paid to sell your soul?
Against that backdrop, every Major now feels like a battle for the soul of golf, a fight in the garden of sport’s good and evil. And against that backdrop, it feels as if golf never needed McIlroy to break his eight-year Major drought more desperately than it needs him to do it this weekend at the Home of Golf amid all the celebrations surrounding this 150th Open championship.
In the past few months, McIlroy has increasingly come to represent all that is good about the sport. He has spoken passionately about the importance of its history and how golfers need to be part of that history for their careers to have meaning beyond money.
He has asked how much money golfers need to be happy, when they are already rich beyond their dreams.
And when you get a day like Saturday, when the sun shines on the waters of the Eden estuary and the wide swathe of West Sands Beach stretches out into the distance and McIlroy and Hovland trade blow for blow in their quest for the Claret Jug and some of the greatest golfers on the planet mass behind them, it seems pertinent to ask why you would want to ruin this with greed.
And so the huge galleries that followed McIlroy around the Old Course roared him on and nearly rent the skies asunder when that bunker shot on the 10th bounced and rolled up the hill and dropped into the hole and catapulted McIlroy into the lead.
A win at The 150th Open on Sunday would break McIlroy’s eight-year drought without a Major
Phil Mickelson, who missed the cut, has come to be the face of the Saudi-backed LIV tour
Even the Masters champion, Scottie Scheffler, another diamond of the golfing establishment, grinned at the theater of it as he stood on the 11th tee.
Earlier in the round, the R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers had joined the crowds following Northern Irishman and the Norwegian around the course, another symbol of McIlroy’s importance to the establishment.
Golf cannot rely on Tiger Woods, who missed the cut here this week, to be its poster boy forever and as he fades from prominence, and pretenders like Brooks Koepka take the LIV cash, it has become obvious that McIlroy is now the jewel in the crown of golf.
It has not quite got to the point where McIlroy is manning the barricades alone but he is seeing other high profile golfers being picked off almost every week.
He is rumored to have turned down eye-watering sums to join the LIV series, just as Woods did. And while the two main tours have McIlroy, then they still have a prestige and kudos that the arrivals at LIV cannot match.
And so as McIlroy sat at the top of the leaderboard later in the third round, having gone into the outright lead with a birdie at the 14th, there was a certain amount of relief that LIV’s best player, Dustin Johnson, slipped away from the summit on the back nine.
McIlroy asked how much money golfers need to be happy as several flock to the LIV tour
He had been within a shot of McIlroy earlier in the afternoon but by the time he finished his round, he was six shots adrift. That will be a relief to the R&A. The prospect of a LIV figurehead winning the most famous tournament in golf at a time when the battle for the sport is raging would be too much for some at the top of the sport to countenance.
LIV needs every public relations victory it can get and one of its players winning a Major would be a giant boost. Instead, after he had dropped a shot on the 17th, it was McIlroy who marched up the 18th just after 8pm in a share of the lead with Hovland.
It was McIlroy who carried the torch for the game and its history and its traditions and its credibility as he moved to within 18 holes of what would be the most important victory of his career and one of the most significant moments in the history of the sport .
McIlroy and Hovland will go out as the last pairing on Sunday to continue their duel for one more round. McIlroy will be cast as the defender of the faith, the man that golf needs to win, the man who has become the conscience of the sport as well as its most popular player.
LIV thinks it can buy anything and everyone but after the drama that played out at St Andrews on Saturday, we know it can’t buy this.