HOYLAKE, England — When Brian Harman drained a 15-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole Friday afternoon to go to 10 under, he changed the calculus of this year’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. The weekend will now turn into a field-wide chase of Harman, who is 5 shots ahead of second place as he searches for his first major win.
Who, if anyone, can track him down? Here are six players to watch for, starting Saturday:
As the wind picked up Friday and players struggled to stay near the top of the leaderboard, the Englishman battled in the late draw and made three birdies on the back nine to finish right where he started: 5 under.
“It turned into a grind in the end,” Fleetwood said. “I actually think for the most part of the round I actually felt like I played really, really well. I just never got any momentum built and didn’t hole any putts.”
Fleetwood is by far the favorite to catch Harman at some point this weekend and not just because he’s closest. He has been playing arguably some of the best golf of his career this year (six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour), has the support of the home crowd and probably won’t have to deal with the pressure of holding on to a 54-hole lead.
As the weather worsens starting Saturday, Fleetwood — who said he watched Harman’s 4 under round Friday morning — should also thrive given his experience playing in this area and in this type of weather. He’ll need to clean up some of his drives (56th in the field in strokes gained off the tee), but if he maintains his solid approach game (21st) and scorching putting (fifth) he should be right in the mix all the way through the final day.
“We don’t know what the conditions are going to bring,” Fleetwood said. “You just have to keep playing until it’s over and see where you finish.”
Like a shot coming out of a cannon, Lee is here to contend at a big event again. Lee started the day even par and was quickly 2 over after bogeys on the 3rd and 4th holes. The Australian then proceeded to battle back, carding a rare eagle on the par-5 fifth hole before adding a birdie on the ninth. Two more birdies on the back nine took Lee all the way to 3 under and a tie for fourth place.
Earlier this year, Lee was in the final group of the Players Championship with Scottie Scheffler who was leading by 2 strokes. It was a disappointing performance as Lee finished tied for sixth place, but the valuable experience could pay dividends this weekend.
At TPC Sawgrass, Lee had success hitting irons off the tee given his ball speed and distance and if the weather gets worse come Saturday, his iron play should feature well on this course as well. Lee may not have much major success, but he has the game and the attitude to make some noise this weekend.
Lee isn’t the only Australian in the mix. Day began Friday 1 over after a solid round of 72 and proceeded to pour in six birdies to leap up the leaderboard and tie for fourth place after two rounds.
Day, like Fleetwood, has been playing well this season, racking up seven top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour and his first win on tour since 2018. Day has been reborn this season but has struggled to translate his performance to majors. Day finished tied for 39th at Augusta and then missed cuts at both the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open.
“It’s been a little bit disappointing,” Day said of his performance in majors. “It’s been a little frustrating for me. But I think if I can get one here this week, that will definitely change it.”
As far as his chances are concerned, Day said the incoming weather should bring back some of the players at the top of the board, which makes him believe the tournament is wide open not just for him but for a lot more players than just those near the top.
“I think I’ve got a number in my head but I’m not going to say it because typically when I say it I’m terribly wrong,” Day said. “I’m just going to kind of keep pushing towards that number.”
Despite being 9 shots back of Harman, there’s no counting out McIlroy. Especially when it feels like he has been playing the first two days with his C-level game and is still gaining the most strokes off the tee of anyone in the field and is one of only 23 players who are under par.
Though his approach shots, putting and short game around the green have been about average or slightly worse, McIlroy’s 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole Friday merited a fist pump as he made his way to the weekend with a chance and plenty of confidence.
“I might be 9 back, but I don’t think there’s going to be a ton of players between me and the lead going into the weekend,” McIlroy said. “I think if I can get to 3-, 4-, 5-under par tomorrow going into Sunday, I’ll have a really good chance.”
Much like Day, McIlroy believes the tougher conditions will allow the cream to rise to the top, and the way he has been flighting irons since he won the Scottish Open last week gives the four-time major winner plenty of hope that he’ll be able to chase Harman down.
“I’ve felt more comfortable in the wind over the last few years, and I feel like I can perform in all sorts of conditions,” McIlroy said. “Whatever it throws at us over the next couple days, I feel like I’ll be prepared for.”
For a moment on the front nine Friday, it looked like Spieth was going to go on a run to skyrocket to the top of the board. But after carding three birdies on the front, Spieth gave them all back on the back nine to finish where he started, 2 under and now 8 shots off the lead.
It was a typical Spieth day, with its ups and downs and shares of wild shots in-between. The three-time major winner didn’t play himself out of it, but he won’t have much margin for error and will need to rein in his driver, which hasn’t been very accurate this week (63rd in the field) to truly enter contention.
“If it’s going to be a grind, I’m certainly up for the challenge,” Spieth said.
Unlike Day and McIlroy, Spieth doesn’t seem to believe Harman will come back down to earth as much, which means a player in the top 20 will need to go low on both days. After Friday, Spieth wasn’t feeling great about his chances.
“I felt like I played as well as or better than yesterday,” said Spieth, who was disappointed with his round. “Needed to really post a score. I understand a lot can happen at an Open, but 8 shots is a lot of shots to spot a player who’s playing really well.”
Harman’s fellow Georgia alum ripped through the back nine at Hoylake in the windy afternoon conditions with six birdies and only one bogey to finish at 4 under and in sole position of third place heading into Saturday.
Straka is coming off a recent win at the John Deere Classic, and a top-seven finish at the PGA Championship. At the U.S. Open, though, he missed the cut. Still, Straka has been able to stay in the mix despite losing shots to the field around the green. His approach game, driving and putting are all in the top 15 in strokes gained in those categories, and his birdie chip-in on 18 Thursday might be the shot of the tournament.
Sepp Straka with a phenomenal chip over the bunker for birdie on the 18th! 🔥
📺: @USAnetwork | #TheOpen pic.twitter.com/tAaQuq53cD
— Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) July 20, 2023
“My game is coming into shape nicely,” Straka said Friday. “I’ve been hitting the ball pretty well and then starting a couple of weeks ago the putter came around, too, and hopefully I can keep that momentum going.”
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