HOYLAKE, England — After 18 holes on a wet and dismal Saturday at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Max Homa and Rory McIlroy were just one shot apart, but their game prospects seemed worlds apart.
McIlroy went straight to the putting green as soon as possible after his goal. As spectators peered out of the clubhouse windows, McIlroy’s frustration was on his face as his caddy Harry stood behind him on each practice putt and watched him line up. As soon as he missed, McIlroy would swing his putter in the air, disappointed, like he was still out there on the course.
It had been such a day for McIlroy. And homie too. Both missed their share of putts within 20, 15, or even 10 feet. Both of them probably knew deep down that they wouldn’t stand a chance on Sunday, with Brian Harman leading by 12 under and the two leading by 9 and 10 respectively.
However, Homa smiled. He was pleased with his performance, how he stayed within himself with every shot while everyone around him was yelling for McIlroy. Homa said he had to make a mental decision to accept his reality and try to thrive in it, almost using it as a test.
“A guy yelled at me, ‘Hurry up, nobody’s watching you today anyway,’ which to be honest, I quite like,” Homa said. “Of course I didn’t see myself as an antagonist, but he was clearly the protagonist today. I figured if I made it on that Ryder Cup team it would obviously have a very similar feel to it, so I figured that would be good practice for making it on that team.”
The 32-year-old still has a lot to do on Sunday. Majors weren’t his forte (he’s only had one top-15 finish in his career) and this year he missed the cut at his US Open home in Los Angeles. He has a top 10 finish within reach and a more solid spot on the US Ryder Cup team.
For McIlroy, the equation is different. His huge losing streak is likely to extend to nine years on Sunday, and while he’s had a season worthy of one of the top three players in the world, his results at the majors since being surpassed by Cam Smith in the final round of last year’s Open have been a rollercoaster of accomplishments and emotions.
At the Masters, his will to win was so great that he withdrew from the tournament on Friday. At PGA, he said he didn’t play his best game but still had an outside shot. It should not be. At the US Open, it felt like everything was going to work out. No putts fell on Sunday and he lost by a single shot in what felt like a redux from St Andrews. He birdied three of the first five holes on Saturday, making it look like he might have a chance to help Harman fight on Sunday. Instead, he now has to work towards another top-10 finish at a Major – his third this year and eighth in the last two years.
What Harman did at Hoylake was impressive and shaped the rest of the field with a little expectation management. Barring the 36-year-old completely collapsing, there will be more than just the Claret Jug at stake for several players in the rankings on Sunday. Take Cameron Young, who was realistic on Saturday when discussing his chances, knowing that if Harman remains as solid as he has looked all week he will have to get aggressive.
“I think you just have to see how the first few holes play out tomorrow and then maybe you’ll start aiming for things that you might not otherwise get,” Young said. “I have more control over my game and also more control over my mind and that extra focus and determination that you have in those situations.”
While Young can’t pull off a five-shot comeback, his performance already carries weight when it comes to the Ryder Cup this week. Young was probably on the safe side when it came to choosing a captain. If he finishes at the top of the leaderboard at a Major, his chances of making the team will increase significantly. A win would of course seal it.
Young isn’t the only one fighting for a Ryder Cup spot. Across the aisle, Sepp Straka has also been causing a stir this week and is 5 under, 7 strokes down ahead of Sunday. The Austrian is one of many names in circulation for some of the final European team spots for this year’s tournament in Italy. Straka has already won once this year and a strong result tomorrow would strengthen his position.
“You just have to go out there and try to get a low score,” Straka said. “You don’t have to do anything crazy because there’s only one guy up there. You just try to play your game and see what happens.”
One player who doesn’t have to worry about his Ryder Cup place is Viktor Hovland. The story with him is much more about when and if he will ever win a major. After finishing outside the top 25 and missing the cut in the first three majors of 2022, Hovland has made 2023 his official coming-out party.
The 25-year-old from Norway finished in the top 10 in the first two Majors of the year and is now 5 under and 7 strokes behind Harman heading into Sunday. His chances are slim, but another top 10 finish for Hovland would give him his strongest year in the majors and make him one of several favorites to win next year.
“I think it’s really cool to be able to win tournaments without playing my A game,” said Hovland. “I think my short game has gotten a lot better, which has really allowed me to do that.”
Who still urgently needs a top 10 ranking? Perhaps none more so than Alex Fitzpatrick. US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick’s brother may be the more messy and less analytical of the two, as Matt said earlier this week, but he’s the one who’s playing better (two shots better, actually) and he’s the one who has a chance to turn his first major championship appearance into two. A top 10 finish for Fitzpatrick would mean he comes back next year and plays the Open at Royal Troon Golf Club, but hearing him talk the result would be more important to his larger goal of turning his career in the right direction.
“It would be nice to land high up. It would be nice to do well, but it’s more a matter of confidence,” Fitzpatrick said. “For the rest of the year I have one job to do and that is to try to get out of the Challenge Tour. [Finishing high] would help.”
Despite all the names above, no single player on the leaderboard has the ability to actually track down and possibly even win Harman Sunday, more so than Jon Rahm, who scored an historic round of 63 on Saturday that was not only good enough for the new course record, but also good enough to put him in the penultimate group on Sunday, six strokes from the lead.
“This is the best round I’ve ever played on a links golf course,” said Rahm. “We practice so hard, and at least a lot of us expect certain things. It gets to a point where it’s like you’re imagining it in your head and what you’re seeing is meant to happen. That doesn’t happen often. … [Today] You see everything unfolding the way it’s supposed to happen and it’s very unusual.”
Rahm is likely to be the most aggressive of the bunch on the final round, partly because he’s one of the most aggressive golfers on the tour, and partly because there’s no penalty for swinging. That’s how he managed to go from 2 over at the start of his round today to 6 under at the end of the day.
“It feels really good, but we still have a lot of work to do tomorrow,” said Rahm. “I did what I needed to, which was to give myself a chance. I’ll go out to eat, see my physical therapist and enjoy some family time before we go to bed. As simple as that.”
The third-ranked player in the world isn’t playing for a check, fighting for a spot on a team, or really doing anything other than trying to make history. Not only would he win his second major of the year — his first since Brooks Koepka in 2018 — but he would make a comeback for the ages. Rahm, who came back after 9 shots on the final day to beat Collin Morikawa in Kapalua earlier in the year, said golf felt like it was going to happen on Saturday. The challenge of transferring that groove to a new day is at the heart of what makes this sport so difficult. But if anyone can, it’s Rahm.