THEY are separated by 791 spots in the world rankings.
Rory McIlroy is the man doing the chasing, though, when he goes out in a group ahead of Oliver Wilson in today’s final round of the £3 million Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
On paper, it looks to be a no-contest. McIlroy has won his last three European Tour events, two of them majors and the other a World Golf Championship. Wilson, on the other hand, has come up empty-handed so far in 228 appearances on that circuit.
Five years ago the pair shared second spot in this event, finishing behind Simon Dyson. McIlroy just missed out again in 2011, having been third on his debut four years prior to that. It’s only a matter of time, surely, before he tastes victory on the hallowed St Andrews Old Course.
Today would be timely, given it’s his father Gerry’s 55th birthday. It could even be a double celebration as they’re in contention in the team event, too.
“A lot of good things can happen tomorrow,” observed McIlroy after carding a 64 at the same venue to move ominously to 12-under-par.
Nine behind Wilson, the first-round pacesetter, after an opening 73 at Carnoustie and still five off the lead after his second circuit at Kingsbarns, the 25-year-old is now just three back, sharing second spot with Englishman Tommy Fleetwood and French duo Raphael Jacquelin and Alexander Levy.
On a day when play was delayed by an hour following an inch-and-a-half of overnight rain before ending in glorious sunshine, McIlroy made his move with five birdies in a row from the third to be out in 30.
Nine-under for the round after 14, he dropped his only shot of the day at the 16th after taking two shots to escape from a fairway bunker. “While 59 never crossed my mind, my target was to beat my previous best score here of 63,” said McIlroy of his first-round effort in the 2010 Open Championship.
“Unfortunately, I was unable to do that, but you can never complain about a 64 here and my game has progressed nicely over the past three days.”
Like so many others, the Old Course is a place that McIlroy has grown to love.
“The first time I played here was in the 2005 St Andrews Links Trophy and I hated it, thinking it was the worst course ever,” he confessed. “I remember thinking, ‘what is the fascination about this place?’ But, having learned about its little nuances, it’s now my favourite course in the world.”
A fifth victory of the season on it today would cement McIlroy’s lead in the Race to Dubai.
“It would be special to walk up the 18th at St Andrews having a chance to win a golf tournament,” said the world No.1.
“But, if it doesn’t happen tomorrow, I’ll gladly wait until next July,” he added in reference to his Claret Jug defence then being at St Andrews.
McIlroy was still cutting his teeth in the paid ranks when Wilson played in the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla. The 33-year-old from Mansfield has since hit the slippery slope. His total earnings this season are less than £14,500. If it’s today that he finally makes the breakthrough after nine second-place finishes, he’ll pocket a whopping £490,000.
“You expect Rory to shoot the lights out every time he tees up but I’ve got to go out and do my own thing and not let it affect me,” said Wilson, after signing for a 65 at St Andrews. “I’ll be nervous as it’s a big day for me but my game has been there for a while and I just needed the adrenaline of being in a position like this.”
Fleetwood, winner of the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles last year, stepped up his bid for another victory on Scottish soil with a ten-under 62 at St Andrews. With preferred lies in operation, it didn’t count in terms of equalling the course record but was his lowest European Tour round. “My putting was on fire,” said the Englishman.
Equally notable was a 63 at Carnoustie from Dutchman Robert Jan Derksen that catapulted him to ten-under, one behind Richie Ramsay, who birdied the last at St Andrews in a flawless 68. Two other Scots, Stephen Gallacher and Chris Doak, are just outside the top ten.