Thirty-six holes down, a five-shot lead. The hunter has become the hunted. Ominously for Brian Harman, in the quintet of mainstream events where he has held any form of advantage at the halfway point, he has failed to win.
That statistic may alleviate stress among the remainder of the Open Championship field, who rubbed their eyes with amazement at Harman’s 10-under-par aggregate. The American scoffed in the face of modest scoring at Royal Liverpool. His two-round score, 132, is the lowest for a Hoylake Open.
In one of the more bizarre major press conference departures of recent times, the 36-year-old explained his penchant for killing animals. He missed the cut at the Masters and immediately slaughtered a pig and a turkey. “I’ve been a hunter my entire life,” he boasted. “I enjoy the strategy of it. We eat a lot of wild meat at my house so I enjoy butchering and I do a lot of hunting.” Champions traditionally drink from the Claret Jug. One is left to ponder what on earth Harman may do with the famous trophy.
This nonsense should not deviate from the fact Harman has a low, piercing ball flight which is ideal for links golf and a putting stroke which currently looks as if it cannot fail. He tied sixth in the Open of 2022 and performed well at last weekend’s Scottish Open. Tommy Fleetwood, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and other blue-chip names have designs on this Open but Harman’s rounds – 67, 65 – have been in the style of a man in complete control of his own destiny. The last player to hold a five-stroke Open lead on Friday night was Louis Oosthuizen in 2010. The South African won by seven.
“I have been hitting a lot of fairways,” the man from Georgia said. “Then I’ve been hitting it on to most of the greens and I’m putting well. I don’t know what anybody else has been doing.” Struggling, Brian. Struggling.
That assessment may be unfair in respect of Fleetwood. He was one over for his round and six shy of Harman when taking to the 14th tee. The Englishman reeled off two birdies in a row from there to cut the deficit. Trouble followed; he found a bunker from the 16th tee, from where he had to settle for a bogey. He bravely rescued pars at the 17th and 18th. This was a hard-fought, level-par 71. Fleetwood, who hails from nearby Southport, has been roared from hole to hole by adoring galleries. He is the long-haired clubber for Liverpool. “It is a very tough and challenging course,” he said. “I feel I played so well at times but it’s difficult to make birdies.”
Harman birdied the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th while reaching the turn in 31. His eight-under-par total was under threat when he had to emerge sideways from a fairway bunker at the 12th and then missed the green. The world No 26 duly chipped in for par. A relatively mundane stretch followed until he arrowed his second shot to the par-five 18th to within 15ft of the cup. He buried his eagle putt. “I love this kind of golf,” he later declared.
Sepp Straka curled in a birdie at the last for a 67 and four-under tally. His Ryder Cup prospects have been generally underplayed but the Austrian would place himself firmly in the thoughts of Luke Donald, the European captain, with a high finish here.
Min Woo Lee’s 68 moved him to three under, where he has Shubhankar Sharma and Day for company. The latter’s 67 was notable as he continues an apparent ascent back to the top of this sport. The group at two under includes Adrian Otaegui, Emiliano Grillo and Spieth. The 2017 champion scrambled well during a round of 70 but having reached five under at the turn, Spieth departed the 18th with shoulders slumped. His back nine was 39. “I understand a lot can happen at an Open but eight shots is a lot to a player who’s playing really well,” said the Texan.
McIlroy’s round of 70 was bookended with birdies but included putting troubles in between. The world No 2 looked unsure of breaks on the greens in whipping winds. Nine shots adrift appears an insurmountable task for McIlroy, who shares 11th place, but the prospect of Harman wobbling has to be factored in. So, too, does heavy rain predicted for much of Saturday. The Open is about to get messy.
“Ten under par is unbelievably impressive,” said McIlroy. “We’ll see what the weekend holds. But after two days I’m actually pretty happy with my work. Right now it’s not quite out of my hands. I think if I can get to three, four, five under par going into Sunday, I’ll have a really good chance.”
Those to miss the cut included Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas and Justin Rose. Jon Rahm, the Masters champion, survived at plus two. If not for Harman, Rahm would be right in this tournament. So many golfers are praying for an epic stumble.