As Brian Harman dominates, British Open could be so much more

As Brian Harman dominates, British Open could be so much more

HOYLAKE, England — Man, is this shaping up to be a classic British Open finish or what? Jon Rahm, the reigning Masters champion, is coming off a heater of a 63 on Saturday that pushed him up the leader board before the other contenders had even settled into their rounds. Cameron Young, the powerful young American who was the runner-up last year at St. Andrews, birdied the last to get to 7 under par, one shot better than Rahm.

Viktor Hovland of Norway, Jason Day of Australia, Tommy Fleetwood from just up the road. Shoot, even the rare Austrian — Sepp Straka, a recent PGA Tour winner — adds some flavor, albeit of Wiener schnitzel. Also in the top 10 are the requisite outliers in Antoine Rozner of France and Shubhankar Sharma of India.

What a leader board. Ahead of Sunday’s final round at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, all of those players are within two shots of one another. This finish could be …

Oh, wait. Shoot. Brian Harman — a 36-year-old, left-handed, everyman PGA Tour grinder — shot a steady and sturdy 69 on Saturday, didn’t he? Darn it. He’s at 12 under. He maintained the five-shot lead he held after 36 holes.

He’s ruining what could be an epic British Open.

Admit what he’s doing but give him his due and allow him his dreams.

“You’d be foolish not to envision [a victory], and I’ve thought about winning majors my whole life,” Harman said Saturday evening. “It’s the reason why I work as hard as I do, why I practice as much as I do, why I sacrifice as much as I do. Tomorrow, if that’s going to come to fruition for me, it has to be all about the golf. It has to be execution and just staying in the moment.”

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Harman should absolutely be commended for how he handled himself during the third round. He entered with that five-shot lead. He wobbled with two bogeys on his first four holes to see that lead shrink to two. He made a steadying birdie at the fifth and didn’t stumble the rest of the way. He has made just three bogeys over 54 holes and absolutely will dictate how Sunday plays out.

“Obviously, Brian looks like he’s going to come in five or six ahead of me,” Young, who posted a stellar 66, said before Harman finished. “And in that case, I think you just kind of have to see how the first couple holes play out tomorrow and then maybe start aiming at things that you might not otherwise.”

Here’s where we have an honest, just-between-us conversation about golf tournaments and golf leader boards: Harman’s bogeys at the first and fourth, when considered by the television viewer or gallery member over here — or, frankly, the sportswriter — were exactly what was needed. A repeat of that would make Sunday more interesting, too. Not to wish ill will on a decent and honest man but …

Golf is a game of honor and chivalry, right? One in which good shots are applauded and poor ones are met with polite indifference? Bobby Jones — who was not only a wonderful golfer but apparently an accomplished arbiter of decorum — once wrote, in a guide to spectator behavior at his beloved Augusta National, that “most distressing to those who love the game of golf is the applauding or cheering of misplays or misfortunes of a player.”

Fine. Muffle them into your shoulder, then. But be realistic, too.

British Open leader board

If you enjoy flipping on the telly for early-morning, major championship golf in the United States, those early bogeys went wonderfully with Saturday’s full English breakfast. (Hold the baked beans, please.) The list of people who preferred Harman to run away with this thing were mostly relegated to the Harman household in Sea Island, Ga.

Golf, perhaps more than any other sport, has a caste system. There are pathways for players to improve their hierarchal standing, and they mostly have to do with winning professional events — on the PGA Tour or DP World Tour (sorry, LIV Golf) — and contending in major championships. That’s not the whole of it, because there are swagger and style elements, too, in personality and game. But that’s most of it.

Harman just hasn’t won or contended enough to rise to his sport’s upper echelon. He has two PGA Tour victories, but the latter came in 2017. He contended in that year’s U.S. Open, leading after 54 holes, and losing to Brooks Koepka brought him no shame. But in 29 previous major appearances, he has posted just one other top-10 finish — and missed 13 cuts.

He works hard at his game and has played splendidly here. But he knows his standing, which is due more to what he hasn’t done than what he has.

“I think about it a lot, obviously,” Harman said. “I’m around the lead a bunch. It’s been hard to stay patient. I felt that after I won the [Wells Fargo Championship] and had the really good chance at the U.S. Open in 2017 that I would probably pop a few more off, and it just hasn’t happened.”

So many of the characters who will chase him Sunday have made it happen. Young isn’t one of those — zero wins on the PGA Tour for the 26-year-old out of Wake Forest. But excuse me if he doesn’t have an absolute vibe. He hits it so loudly and stands so strong that he appears able to break a golf course. He has this, too, in his holster: a tee shot on the 72nd hole last year at St. Andrews that reached the green and set up an eagle that vaulted him to that runner-up spot.

And Rahm needs no introduction. His 63 on Saturday was perhaps less surprising than his indifferent play in the first two rounds.

“Today was one of those days where I felt invincible,” he said in Spanish.

That’s the kind of swagger, the sort of athletic arrogance, that contributes to great theater at major championships.

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Hovland, the 25-year-old Norwegian, played in the last group at this year’s PGA Championship and has top-seven finishes in three of the past four majors. He’s one of those guys who fits in the a-major-is-eventually-inevitable category. A win by him? It’s allowable, even celebrated.

Harman? His playing partner in the final group Saturday was Fleetwood, from nearby Southport, another contender who falls in the worthy category. The support wasn’t just heavily on the Englishman’s side.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t hear some things that weren’t super nice today towards me,” Harman said.

“It’s unrepeatable,” he said.

Okay, fine. That’s a bridge too far. Brian Harman has done everything right to put himself in position for his biggest professional accomplishment by far. In his interest, all the best.

But in the interest of a fun Sunday at the 151st British Open? If we’re being honest, another opening bogey would do nicely, thanks.

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