The Open: Rory McIlroy & Viktor Hovland fight Duel in Sun in St Andrews

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Venue: St Andrews, Scotland Dates: 14-17 July
Coverage: BBC TV, radio and online, on BBC Two, BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button, BBC Radio 5 live, BBC Sounds, BBC Sport website and the BBC Sport mobile app. Full coverage details.

It would take a lot to upset Viktor Hovland, zen warrior and Open Championship co-leader.

A ball plugged in a bunker? He’d only shrug, you suspect. One buried in a bush? Bet the house on the same magnanimous response from the together Norwegian.

If you were looking for angst at St Andrews, then you’d come to the wrong place. Save for a quietly whispered f-bomb on the back nine when a birdie putt refused to disappear, Hovland was serenity personified.

On day three of a tournament pockmarked by the bitterness and rancour of the LIV story, it was fitting that Hovland, with his infectious smile and his cheery demeanour, was one of the main men in turning the Strife in Fife into something more akin to another Duel in the Sun.

From Old Tom Morris’ twitching whiskers earlier in the week when the chat about Saudi money loomed as large on the horizon as the gorgeous West Sands, to Hovland, seeking his first major title, going toe-to-toe with Rory McIlroy chasing a first in eight years.

It was relentless and it was magnificent, right down to the final hole with a pair of birdies that locked them together on 16-under.

It’s probable – almost a racing certainty – that The Open will be won with a winning score of 20, 21, 22-under par. The traditionalists might be troubled by that. They shouldn’t be. This is supposed to be the entertainment business and the Old Course has given up so much of that this week.

Let’s not talk of the advancement of technology and the distance of the ball and whether the place is fit for the modern game – US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick replied “not really” when asked that very thing after his round.

Let’s instead revel in the quality of it all. Hovland and McIlroy will go out in the last group on Sunday and they have a supporting cast that sets things up quite beautifully for the finale. On the 150th anniversary of the championship, there is every chance of the classic last day that it deserves.

‘This is McIlroy’s best chance to be the star again’

McIlroy is the renaissance man, major-less in the last 29 of these things and wounded, no doubt, by the sight of an old guard (Zach Johnson, Jimmy Walker, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson) and an in-between guard (Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia) and a legion of young blasters winning one since he last won one.

Twenty-three different players have lifted one of golf’s four major trophies since McIlroy experienced the sensation. Nineteen of them were first-time major winners. For far too long McIlroy has had his nose pressed against the glass on those Sundays. This is his greatest chance to break the door down and be the star again.

Hovland is right there with him, a mega-talented but unfulfilled thruster. He’s only 24 but there’s a sense about him that he should be further ahead in his career than he is.

He would be, had it not been for a flaw in his game. “I suck at chipping,” he smiled a few years back – and that was after winning a tournament. There was a brief spell around May of this year when Hovland was statistically the worst performer around the greens on the entire PGA Tour.

The last time we saw him at a major was at Brookline last month. He was going along nicely at the US Open, two-under through his 27 holes and sitting seventh. Promising. Then the demons descended. His next 11 holes went bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, par, bogey, par, bogey, bogey. From a position to challenge at two under he was heading for the airport at seven over.

He’s back, though. What composure he showed out there. When McIlroy holed from a bunker for eagle on 10, Hovland rolled in a tricky putt for birdie. When his approach to the Road Hole carried over the back of the green, he putted back up the bank to leave himself an easy putt for par.

The galleries were massively on the Northern Irishman’s side – they’d carry him on a sedan chair down every fairway if they could – but Hovland was popular out there, too. How could he not be. He’s one of the classiest, smiliest, most unaffected guys in golf.

‘Supporting cast adds to intoxicating feel’

Four shots back, Cameron Young is in the bolter category, a rookie American whose father is a pro at New York’s Sleepy Hollow, not a description you could apply to the Old Course on Saturday.

Golf’s conventions are being ripped asunder in front of our eyes. For years it was said that a player without experience couldn’t win one of these prizes, especially not an Open with all its maddening quirks. Then Collin Morikawa, fearless and brilliant, comes along and does just that.

As a 13-year-old on a family holiday to Fife, Young played the Old Course. He asked permission to play off the back sticks. Once the smelling salts had taken hold, the members sauntered out to look at this precocious kid. They’re still looking.

Young had a painful time on 16 on Saturday – he took double – but he’s still alive and has to be respected.

Cam Smith is the hero of the mullet set. He, too, is four shots back and in the perfect weather that’s predicted for Sunday that’s a lot of ground to make up on the two guys up top. One of them might be catchable. Both of them? Not impossible by any means, but he’ll need to tear it up.

That’s what gives the final round such an intoxicating feel. For those players tucked in behind the main two the approach will be all-out attack.

Scottie Scheffler, world number one, is in the leaders’ slipstream. When they look over their shoulders the last man they’d want to see there is Scheffler, but he’s five shots distant, a gap that will give them comfort.

Si Woo Kim of South Korea is there, too. In his last five majors he’s missed a cut, finished tied for 40th, tied for 39th, tied for 60th and cut again, but this is the essence of Open golf. There’s always one who surprises you. Many times, more than one.

And then there’s what constitutes a bogey man in modern golf, a LIV man who got it to 12-under at one point in his round before finishing on 10-under.

As Dustin Johnson moved into contention you were reminded of the question put to LIV’s Ian Poulter about whether he thought Old Tom Morris would be turning in his grave with all that’s been going on lately. Poulter looked bemused, which was fair enough. The R&A will be relieved that Johnson didn’t kick on and finish higher up the board, which is fair enough, too.

It’s hard to see him winning and so the spectacle of LIV licking their lips at having the champion golfer of the year in their ranks has receded. Not totally, but enough for the establishment’s palpitations to ease.

There’s a shoot-out coming and in the heat of St Andrews on Sunday. It could be one of the great ones.

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