ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Tiger Woods was finishing up at the Old Course on Friday, perhaps for good, and Rory McIlroy was just getting started.
As they exchanged understanding glances and walked in opposite directions on parallel paths — Woods on the 18th hole, McIlroy on the first — it felt like a passing of the torch. But perhaps a passing of the lightsaber was more in order as McIlroy headed out to lead the charge against the dark side at this 150th British Open.
That overstates it, of course. This is only golf, after all, and golf in a fine place, particularly in the clear and clement conditions that prevailed again for most 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, as it has been for centuries, but the sport’s landscape is changing quickly, with new allies and enmities being created over the breakaway, mega-money LIV Golf Invitational series.
Just a few months ago, there were 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 because of their tour’s Saudi Arabian backing and the sense that they are grabbing the easy money no matter how uneasy it makes everyone feel.
“Everybody, it feels like, is against us, and that’s OK,” said Talor Gooch, a LIV golfer who is tied for eighth at seven under par heading into Saturday’s third round. “It’s kind of banded us together, I think.”
The bonding works both ways on and off the course. At the Dunvegan Hotel, the popular St. Andrews pub near the 18th hole, patrons were often booing LIV golfers on Friday when they appeared on the television coverage of the Open.
There were plenty of them to jeer on the early leaderboard, and when McIlroy doffed his cap at Woods on the first hole and sallied forth, Dustin Johnson, the former No. 1 and highest-ranked LIV player, was the rebel in charge.
But by the end of the second round, Johnson, at nine under par, had been reeled in by the PGA Tour (at least until the next 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 United States, 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 15th hole.
“I was a little concerned it was going to go too far right,” he said. “But it straightened out and somehow landed on that side slope softly and just trickled in. That was unbelievable.”
By such fine margins and lucky breaks are major championships won, but there will 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 think, which slowed us up just a touch,” said Smith, who had a middle-of-the-pack start time on Friday. “We were able to hit some shots that we weren’t able to 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, for sure.”
And yet Woods’s record winning score at St. Andrews of 19 under par in 2000 certainly looks under threat. He will not be the one to challenge it after shooting nine over par for two rounds and missing the cut, just as he missed it in 2015 in the most recent Open Championship at St. Andrews.
But Friday was much 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 crowd and his colleagues.
“As I walked further along the fairway, 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 was getting from the guys as they were going out and I was 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 another scenario as he embarked on what turned out to be a round of 68.
“It would have been a cool moment if he was eight under par instead of eight over or whatever he was,” McIlroy said. “I just hope, everyone hopes, it’s not the end of his Old Course career. I think he deserves and we deserve for him to have another crack at it.”
Woods, often grim and tight-lipped after poor performances, was expansive and forthcoming on Friday. After playing only to win for most of his career, it seemed that simply participating was enough for peace of mind after the car crash that severely damaged his right leg 17 months ago.
“I’ve gotten pretty close to Tiger over these last few years,” said McIlroy, a Northern Irishman based near Woods in the golfing enclave of Jupiter, Fla. “I think we’ve all sort of rallied around him down there in Jupiter, and we all want to see him do well. He was all our hero growing up, even though I’m maybe a touch older than some of the other guys. We want to see him still out there competing, and this week was obviously a tough week for him, but we’re all behind him.”
Woods said he had no immediate plans to compete again and was not sure that if and when he did return that he would be able to play a fuller schedule. In this minimalist comeback, he played in three majors and only three majors, beginning with the Masters in April.
“I understand being more battle hardened, but it’s just hard to walk and play 18 holes,” Woods said. “People have no idea what I have to go through, and the hours of work on the body, pre and post, each and every single day to do what I just did. That’s what people don’t understand.”
He was hardly the only golf luminary to fall short at the Old Course. Collin Morikawa, the reigning British Open champion, missed the cut by a stroke after failing to keep pace with McIlroy in their group and finishing at one over par.
Louis Oosthuizen, the South African who won an Open at St. Andrews in 2010, will also 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 hurry, and no one knows how the game or this historic Open Championship will turn out. But what is clear is that if the final holes on Sunday come down to, say, Johnson versus McIlroy for the claret jug, it will not be perceived inside or outside the game as simply Johnson versus McIlroy.
May the force be with them.