HOYLAKE, England — When Brian Harman landed a 15-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole to make it 10 under on Friday afternoon, he changed the calculations of this year’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. The weekend now turns into a field-wide chase for Harman, who is five strokes clear of second place and hoping for his first big win.
Who, if anyone, can track him down? Here are six players to watch out for from Saturday:
As the wind picked up on Friday and players struggled to stay atop the leaderboard, the Englishman struggled in the late draw, making three birdies down the back nine to finish exactly where he started: 5 under.
“It got tricky at the end,” Fleetwood said. “I actually think I really felt like I played really, really well for most of the round. I just never built momentum and never holed putts.”
Fleetwood is the clear favorite to catch Harman at some point this weekend, and it’s not just because he’s the closest. He has arguably played the best golf game of his career this year (six top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour), has the support of the home crowd and likely won’t have to deal with the pressure of maintaining a 54-hole lead.
With the weather deteriorating from Saturday, Fleetwood – who said he saw Harman’s round of 4-unders on Friday morning – should also be successful given his experience of the area and weather. He needs to clean up some of his drives (56th in the field in shots won from the tee) but if he maintains his solid approach game (21st) and strong putting (5th) he should be in full swing throughout the final day.
“We don’t know what the conditions will bring,” Fleetwood said. “You just have to keep playing until it’s over and see where you end up.”
Like a shot from a cannon, Lee is here to compete again at a big event. Lee started the day with an even par and quickly had a 2 lead after bogeys on the 3rd and 4th holes. The Aussie then fought back by hitting a rare eagle on the par 5 fifth before adding a birdie on the ninth. Two more birdies on the back nine took Lee to 3 under and a tie for fourth place.
Earlier in the year, Lee was in the final group of the Players Championship with Scottie Scheffler, who was two shots ahead. It was a disappointing performance as Lee tied for sixth place on points, but the valuable experience could pay off this weekend.
At TPC Sawgrass, Lee had success hitting the irons off the tee because of his ball speed and distance, and if the weather worsens on Saturday his iron game should come into its own here as well. Lee may not have great success, but he has the game and attitude to turn heads this weekend.
Lee isn’t the only Australian in the mix. The day started Friday with a 72 lead, scoring six birdies to jump up the leaderboard and secure fourth place after two rounds.
Day, like Fleetwood, has played well this season, earning seven top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour and his first win on the tour since 2018. Day was reborn this season but struggled to translate his performance to the majors. Day tied for 39th in Augusta and then missed both the PGA Championship and the US Open Cuts.
“It was a bit disappointing,” Day said of his performance in the majors. “It was a little frustrating for me. But I think if I get one here this week that will definitely change.”
As for his odds, Day said the coming weather should bring some of the players back to the top of the board, leading him to believe the tournament is wide open not just for him but for many more players than just those at the top.
“I think I have a number in my head, but I’m not going to say it because usually when I say it, I’m terribly wrong,” Day said. “I’m just going to keep pushing for that number.”
Despite being nine shots behind Harman, McIlroy is uncountable. Especially when you feel like he played his C-level game for the first two days and is still hitting the most shots from the tee of anyone in the field and is one of only 23 players to underperform.
Though his approach shots, putting, and short game around the green were average or a little worse, McIlroy’s 8-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole on Friday earned a fist as he headed into the weekend with a chance and plenty of confidence.
“I’m maybe nine players behind, but I don’t think there will be many players between me and the lead this weekend,” said McIlroy. “I think if I can get a par of 3, 4, 5 under tomorrow by Sunday I have a really good chance.”
Much like Day, McIlroy believes the tougher conditions will allow the front runners to climb to the top and the way he’s been hitting irons since winning the Scottish Open last week gives the four-time Major winner great hope he can overtake Harman.
“I’ve gotten more comfortable in the wind over the last few years and feel like I can perform in all kinds of conditions,” said McIlroy. “Whatever awaits us in the next few days, I feel like I’m prepared for it.”
For a moment it seemed like Spieth would start a run in the top nine on Friday and climb to the top of the table. But after landing three birdies up front, Spieth returned them all to the back nine and finished where he started: 2 under and now 8 shots from the lead.
It was a typical Spieth day with ups and downs and some wild shots in between. While the three-time Major winner isn’t upset, he won’t have much room for error and will need to rein in his driver, who hasn’t been very precise this week (63rd in the field) to really keep up.
“If it gets strenuous, I’m definitely up to the challenge,” said Spieth.
Unlike Day and McIlroy, Spieth doesn’t seem to think Harman will come back to earth, which means a player in the top 20 has to dig deep on both days. After Friday, Spieth no longer assessed his chances as well.
“I had the feeling that I played just as well or even better than yesterday,” said Spieth, who was disappointed with his round. “Really need to announce a score. I understand a lot can happen in an Open, but 8 shots is a lot of shots to spot a player playing really well.”
Harman’s Georgia compatriot sped through the back nine in windy Hoylake afternoon conditions with six birdies and just one bogey to finish 4-under and lone third place ahead of Saturday.
Straka recently earned a win at the John Deere Classic and a top seven finish at the PGA Championship. However, he missed the cut at the US Open. Still, Straka managed to stay in the game despite losing shots down the field around the green. His approach play, driving and putting all rank in the top 15 for shots scored in those categories, and his Thursday 18 birdie chip-in could be the shot of the tournament.
Sepp Straka with a phenomenal chip over the bunker for a birdie on the 18th! 🔥
– Golf Channel (@GolfChannel) July 20, 2023
“My game is in good shape,” said Straka on Friday. “I was hitting the ball pretty well and then the putter came along a few weeks ago and I’m hoping to keep that momentum going.”