ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Tiger Woods was ending up on the Old Course on Friday, perhaps for good, and Rory McIlroy was just getting began.
As they exchanged understanding glances and walked in opposite directions on parallel paths — Woods on the 18th hole, McIlroy on the primary — it felt like a passing of the torch. But perhaps a passing of the lightsaber was more so as as McIlroy headed out to steer the charge against the dark side at this a hundred and fiftieth British Open.
That overstates it, in fact. This is simply golf, in any case, and golf in a advantageous place, particularly within the clear and clement conditions that prevailed again for many of the afternoon, with banks of cumulus clouds standing watch over the greens and browning fairways of golf’s ancestral home.
It was quite a panorama, because it has been for hundreds of years, however the sport’s landscape is changing quickly, with recent allies and enmities being created over the breakaway, mega-money LIV Golf Invitational series.
Just a couple of months ago, there have been only golfers. Now, there are golfers and LIV golfers, and though today’s rebels have a habit of becoming tomorrow’s establishment, for now the rebels are wearing the black hats due to their tour’s Saudi Arabian backing and the sense that they’re grabbing the straightforward money irrespective of how uneasy it makes everyone feel.
“Everybody, it seems like, is against us, and that’s OK,” said Talor Gooch, a LIV golfer who’s tied for eighth at seven under par heading into Saturday’s third round. “It’s type of banded us together, I feel.”
The bonding works each ways on and off the course. On the Dunvegan Hotel, the favored St. Andrews pub near the 18th hole, patrons were often booing LIV golfers on Friday after they appeared on the tv coverage of the Open.
There have been loads of them to jeer on the early leaderboard, and when McIlroy doffed his cap at Woods on the primary hole and sallied forth, Dustin Johnson, the previous No. 1 and highest-ranked LIV player, was the rebel in charge.
But by the tip of the second round, Johnson, at nine under par, had been reeled in by the PGA Tour (at the very least until the subsequent round of defections).
Cameron Smith, Australia’s top player, was on top at 13 under, followed by Cameron Young, the first-round leader from the USA, at 11 under. Tied for third at 10 under were McIlroy and Viktor Hovland of Norway who made the shot of the day by holing out from the rough from about 140 yards for eagle on the par-4 fifteenth hole.
“I used to be somewhat concerned it was going to go too far right,” he said. “But it surely straightened out and someway landed on that side slope softly and just trickled in. That was unbelievable.”
By such advantageous margins and lucky breaks are major championships won, but there shall be plenty more unexpected bounces on the undulating and increasingly unforgiving fairways of the Old Course.
“We had that on-and-off rain this morning, I feel, which slowed us up only a touch,” said Smith, who had a middle-of-the-pack start time on Friday. “We were capable of hit some shots that we weren’t capable of hit yesterday, but I still think it’s going to get really firm and fast. This course bakes out so quickly. It’s going to be a challenge, needless to say.”
And yet Woods’s record winning rating at St. Andrews of 19 under par in 2000 definitely looks under threat. He won’t be the one to challenge it after shooting nine over par for 2 rounds and missing the cut, just as he missed it in 2015 in probably the most recent Open Championship at St. Andrews.
But Friday was way more bittersweet: bitter because Woods at this diminished stage is nowhere near the player he once was in Scotland and beyond; sweet because he could sense the compassion and appreciation from the gang and his colleagues.
“As I walked further along the golf green, I saw Rory right there,” he said of the 18th hole. “He gave me the tip of the cap. It was pretty cool, the nods I used to be getting from the blokes as they were going out and I used to be coming in, just the respect. And from a players’ fraternity level, it’s neat to see that and feel that.”
McIlroy, 33, grasped the symbolism but would have preferred one other scenario as he launched into what turned out to be a round of 68.
“It could have been a cool moment if he was eight under par as a substitute of eight over or whatever he was,” McIlroy said. “I just hope, everyone hopes, it’s not the tip of his Old Course profession. I feel he deserves and we deserve for him to have one other crack at it.”
Woods, often grim and tight-lipped after poor performances, was expansive and forthcoming on Friday. After playing only to win for many of his profession, it seemed that simply participating was enough for peace of mind after the automotive crash that severely damaged his right leg 17 months ago.
“I’ve gotten pretty near Tiger over these previous couple of years,” said McIlroy, a Northern Irishman based near Woods within the golfing enclave of Jupiter, Fla. “I feel we’ve all type of rallied around him down there in Jupiter, and all of us wish to see him do well. He was all our hero growing up, despite the fact that I’m perhaps a touch older than a number of the other guys. We wish to see him still on the market competing, and this week was obviously a troublesome week for him, but we’re all behind him.”
Woods said he had no immediate plans to compete again and was unsure that if and when he did return that he would find a way to play a fuller schedule. On this minimalist comeback, he played in three majors and only three majors, starting with the Masters in April.
“I understand being more battle hardened, however it’s just hard to walk and play 18 holes,” Woods said. “People don’t know what I actually have to undergo, and the hours of labor on the body, pre and post, every single day to do what I just did. That’s what people don’t understand.”
He was hardly the one golf luminary to fall short on the Old Course. Collin Morikawa, the reigning British Open champion, missed the cut by a stroke after failing to maintain pace with McIlroy of their group and ending at one over par.
Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who won an Open at St. Andrews in 2010, may even miss the weekend. So will Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka, fellow members of the LIV tour and former major champions.
The cards and stars have been reshuffled in a rush, and nobody knows how the sport or this historic Open Championship will end up. But what is obvious is that if the ultimate holes on Sunday come right down to, say, Johnson versus McIlroy for the claret jug, it can not be perceived inside or outside the sport as simply Johnson versus McIlroy.
May the force be with them.