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He and Viktor Hovland lead the field by four and at 16-under are likely to break the Open Championship scoring record. We've been here before with McIlroy, of course, but it does feel different this time.
"I’m a better player now than I was then ," he said after signing for a second 66 of the week. "I’m a better player now than I was 12 months ago. I’ve got a lot of belief in myself. I’ve done it before, I know I can do it again."
The Northern Irishman started 'moving day' trailing Cam Smith by three but it was quickly his playing partner he needed to keep tabs on. As Smith stalled, Hovland snatched the lead courtesy of four birdies in a row from the third.
McIlroy, however, was unfazed.
"I missed some opportunities early after watching Viktor hole a couple of long ones early on but I stayed really patient. Got my first birdie of the day on five and I feel like my patience was rewarded around the turn."
It was, in a big way. A two-putt birdie at the ninth got him to the turn in 33 before he produced the moment of the championship so far. After finding the bunker off the tenth tee, the 33-year-old defied the difficulty of the shot at hand, splashing up and out and into the hole for an eagle that sent the St Andrews faithful into a frenzy.
"Anything inside ten feet I felt was going to be a really good shot. It just came out perfectly. I think it was the first bunker I put it in this week and it was a nice result. The hole was sort of perched up on a little crown there and I was just trying to get it somewhat close
"It was skill to get it close but it was luck that it went in the hole. You need a little bit of luck every now and again, especially in these big tournaments. And that was a nice bonus. I didn't want to rile the crowd up too much but it was a big moment for sure."
Video: Perks of winning The Open
Such was the noise, it would have been easy to let the occasion distract him. However, as the challenges of many wilted through a tricky back-nine stretch, McIlroy displayed a steely determination and a commitment to his formula for success.
Even when he found himself almost stuck against the boundary wall of the famous Road Hole, there was no panic.
"It could have ended up anywhere, so to chip it onto the green and take two putts, I was happy enough to get out of there with a five. I'm trying to play with discipline, I'm trying to play the percentages. Where they've put some of these pin positions this week, it's about playing away from them and taking advantage of the birdie holes. That's been the key to this week and it will be the key to tomorrow as well."
As for what it would mean to win, the battle-hardened four-time Major champ isn't allowing himself to get carried away. He knows the scale of the challenge that awaits him having been on the wrong end of many close calls since he last tasted victory in one of the game's showpiece events.
But he is only human after all, and it's hard to escape the magnitude of winning The 150th Open at the Home of Golf.
"It [winning] would mean everything because of what I’ve been through the last few years in trying to get that fifth one," he added. "But I need to go out and keep the same mindset that I had the last three days and stay in my own little world.
"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. It's what dreams are made of. And I'm going to try to make a dream come true tomorrow."
A lifelong golf fan, Andy graduated in 2019 with a degree in Sports Journalism and got his first role in the industry as the Instruction Editor for National Club Golfer. From there, he went on to enjoy a spell freelancing for Stats Perform producing football reports, and then for RacingNews365 covering Formula 1. However, he couldn't turn down the opportunity to get back into the sport he grew up watching and playing and now covers a mixture of equipment, instruction and news for Golf Monthly's website and print title.
Andy took up the game at the age of seven and even harboured ambitions of a career in the professional ranks for a spell. That didn’t pan out, but he still enjoys his weekend golf at Royal Troon and holds a scratch handicap. As a side note, he's made five holes-in-one and could quite possibly be Retief Goosen’s biggest fan.
As well as the above, some of Andy's work has featured on websites such as goal.com, dailyrecord.co.uk, and theopen.com.
What's in Andy's bag?
Driver: Callaway Mavrik Sub-Zero (9°)
3-wood: TaylorMade M1 (15°)
Driving iron: Titleist U500 (17°)
Irons: Callaway Apex Pro '19 (4-PW)
Wedges: Titleist Vokey SM9 (50°, 54° and 58°)
Putter: Titleist Scotty Cameron Newport 2.5
Ball: Titleist Pro V1
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