A dozen players were separated by four shots, which is nothing considering that the last two British Open champions at Carnoustie rallied from 10 shots (Paul Lawrie) and six shots (Padraig Harrington) on the final day.
Moments later, Tiger Woods sent the gallery into a frenzy with three straight birdies to get into contention at a major for the first time in five years. He had spent a third round in placid conditions by the North Sea making a steep, brisk climb.
"It would be, as you said, better on Sunday", said Woods, whose 5-under-par 66 was his first score in the 60s at The Open in 11 years.
By then, it looked like the big thing was just bragging.
"I've got a bit of experience at this, maybe more so than some of the other guys on the leaderboard", said McIlroy.
One name in the mix makes it all feel so new. It is just 458 days since he had his fourth back surgery. Briefly, Woods was even tied for the lead, which hadn't happened at a major since 2012.
It was his only bogey of the day, but the closing holes at Carnoustie are brutal. The No. 2 player in the world, Justin Thomas, also was headed toward a weekend off. Thomas was 2 under for the tournament when it took him two shots to get out of a pot bunker in the sixth fairway and three putts from long range on the green, leading to double bogey. After 36 holes, Kevin Kisner and Zach Johnson lead the pack at 6-under-par, but they are being chased by a bevy of the game's best players.
It was there for only 20 minutes.
But, on a course where Paul Lawrie fought back from a record 10-shot deficit to win the 1999 Championship, the Texan believes Woods will pose a significant threat during Sunday's final round.
"I didn't know I was tied for the lead at one point, I knew I was within one". "It's been a few years since I've felt like this". "I was very, very fortunate that it got far enough down there where I had a full wedge into the green". Even on the 18th fortune favored Woods as his drive hit the bank of the famous Barry Burn, but the ball bounced back into the rough rather than dropping into the drink.
Disappointed but not down, Kisner removed his cap behind the green and scratched his head as if he wondered what hit him. His lag putts in particular excelled, and he said, "I hit so many good putts out there today". And yet he has still won 12 times on the PGA Tour, along with majors at the Masters and British Open.
With him, the imaginations went off on a run, as when one reporter asked what a 15th major title might mean given all the strain and hubbub and surgery since the 14th, which was the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in San Diego.