HEDDON-ON-THE-WALL, England — A few hundred yards from Close House Golf Club lie the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, a barrier built to keep an English corner of the Roman Empire safe from marauding outsiders.
On Thursday and Friday at the British Masters, as if summoned to man those fortifications, the English amassed themselves at the top of the leaderboard, with no fewer than seven in the top nine after 36 holes, foremost among them Tyrrell Hatton who entered the weekend with a three-shot lead.
On Saturday — golf’s mythical Moving Day — the rest of the world fought back and the man leading the attack was, somewhat ironically, treated by the galleries as nothing less than a local hero.
His name? Rory McIlroy.
Ultimately the leader after 54 holes is Sweden’s Robert Karlsson, who defied an errant driver to card a 3-under-par 67 and total 12 under.
A further five golfers lie one shot back in a tie for second.
But there is no doubt who will garner most attention on Sunday and who most now consider favourite for the title: McIlroy is T-7 and just two back of the lead.
He entered this week with limited aspirations. Everyone was aware that he is fulfilling membership requirements rather than asking for a favour from the Tour and that his eye is on a period of recuperation.
Absolutely no one felt cheated by that; rather they appreciated the boost his presence gives to the tournament. Yet on Saturday morning the conditions and an enthusiastic Geordie crowd conspired to fire the world No. 6’s competitive juices.
He chipped in for a second birdie of the day at the fifth and hit the par-5 sixth in two to add a third. After he unleashed his drive from the elevated tee at the short par-4 ninth the galleries marched down the hill alongside him.
“Just look at them,” said a voice by the green. “Like a Roman Army emerging over the horizon, led by their general.”
McIlroy’s drive had missed the green, but his smart scramble earned another birdie to make the turn in 4-under for the day. “Haway, man, Rory,” cried a North-East accent, prompting others to add their encouragement as he walked to the 10th tee.
Their hero doffed his cap and smiled. He would add just two more par breakers on the back nine, but his mood afterward was telling: He had the sniff of a win and you could tell he quite liked it.
“It was brilliant out there,” he said. “The amount of people was incredible and it’s great to give them something to cheer about.”
He was under no illusions that the course was perfectly set up for a low score, but he was pleased to have grabbed that opportunity.
“The conditions were perfect for going low,” he reported. “I was giving myself plenty of chances and it was nice to see a few putts drop. 64 was good. I’ve put myself in a position where if I hole those putts again tomorrow it might mean something.
“I would expect to be at least four or five back going into tomorrow, but I know I can go low. I might have a chance to win.”
If the course set-up and the galleries had contrived to inspire him, the weather now joined in.
Squalls of rain and a cold wind made life difficult for the leaders and they failed to create the gap McIlroy predicted.
Karlsson’s round was extraordinary. His experiences on the 16th and 17th summed up his day.
At the first of those holes he missed the fairway from the tee, failed to find the green with the approach, chipped close, clearly felt funny on the putt, but it dropped and he walked away shaking his head at having made par.
At the next he pitched close and dropped the birdie; crucially taking the chance when it was offered. He didn’t know it at the time, but it earned him the lead.
That’s because Hatton, who spent the whole day chuntering, was to make a third bogey of the day at the final hole to complete a miserable lap of 1-over 71.
It is never easy to maintain the momentum of starting a tournament with rounds of 63-65, but it is a tougher task when you’re falling out with the putting surfaces as Hatton was.
At the fifth he tapped in for par and then stared malevolently at a perceived blemish on the grass. At the ninth he missed a short birdie putt then banged his putter on errant turf.
He completed the hat trick with a snarl at the final green when his par putt slipped by.
“A very frustrating day,” he admitted afterward. “I had so many awkward numbers. When you’re right in between club clubs, sometimes it’s hard to get close to the hole.
“You know, I didn’t hole any putts today. I found it really difficult. The ball just wouldn’t stay on line. There’s so many footprints, and obviously the course is wet and hasn’t taken the rain too well. You know, it’s a struggle when you’re last out.”
The latter two thrashed 65s and Ramsay was particularly bullish about the final round.
“The back nine on Sunday,” he said. “I just love it. Pressure is just brilliant. Put me in that position, it’s the best place you can be. I can’t wait for it.”
Nor can McIlroy. He predicted he might make the last six groups and believed that might give him a small hope of success; in fact he will be in the third last group.
He spent Friday night at a Newcastle curry house and was asked if he would be returning there for luck before the final round.
“That might be pushing my luck rather than making it,” he joked. It was revealing: He was clearly enjoying himself. Suddenly this week of good deeds has the potential to end his difficult 2017 on a high.