The raging bull of Spain went on a charge for the ages but Brian Harman isn’t the sort of guy who flinches at the sight of a big beast. Hunting down the hunter to win The Open? It might even be beyond Jon Rahm.
To see the Masters champion play like this is a magnificent thing indeed. He was two over par and nowhere when the third round began, and by the close of moving day he had redefined the term.
In 63 shots, Rahm had not only set a Hoylake course record, but he also hurled himself 36 places up the leaderboard to third on six under for the tournament. It was remarkable, a blitz of eight birdies from a man who has spent so much of these championships in a grump.
And yet he is staring at an almighty chasm, because six shots out in front, and five clear of second-placed Cameron Young, is an American veteran who has not succumbed to the enormity of his opportunity. His 69, taking him to 12 under for the week, means The Open is very much Harman’s to lose.
By now, if we are honest, most assumed his challenge would be over. That he would have wilted. That might even be the hope for some, given British audiences have this week been informed of his fondness for hunting, with the accompanying imagery on his Instagram account of slayed elk, alligators and turkeys.
American Brian Harman bounced back from a slow start to take a five-shot lead on Saturday
The Open is very much Harman’s to lose after his 69 took him to 12 under for the week
But taking him down is proving to be a task beyond the use of clubs and balls.
That goes for Rory McIlroy, whose third-round 69 left him nine back and declining to speak to media, and likewise for Tommy Fleetwood, who remains at five under, the same as he was on Thursday night.
He desperately needs to find a spurt if he is to end the 31-year English curse at The Open, but that will rely on a massive capitulation from Harman. It might yet happen, because proximity to greatness can do strange things to a golfer, and the 36-year-old has admitted that was the case on the only other time he has been this close, which is to say the 2017 US Open, when he led by a stroke through 54 holes.
He lost that tournament to Brooks Koepka by four shots, and he has won no tournaments of any description since his second PGA Tour win six years ago, but this is different. The cushion is that much larger. His putting that much sharper. His mind that much cooler.
The latter was proven in how he responded to dropping two shots in his opening four holes to eight under. Wheels off, party over, we thought. His advantage was down to two over Rahm and Fleetwood, his playing partner. But how he rallied – by the turn he was back to 10 under and another two shots were collected on the way in.
It was a remarkable exhibition of progress under pressure.
‘I’ve thought about winning majors for my whole entire life,’ Harman said. ‘It’s the whole reason 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.’
Fleetwood had none of the same post-round buzz. His second straight loop of 71 might best be encapsulated by his glance at the leaderboard on the 13th, when he saw positive momentum being achieved by all around him and let out a little sigh. He had birdied the second in perfect scoring conditions, but he gave it back at 10 and the rest of the round was pars and missed putts.
Cameron Young (pictured) sits behind Harman in second place after a third-round 66
Tommy Fleetwood prepares to play tee shot on the fourth hole on his third round at Royal Liverpool
‘It was just one of those frustrating days,’ Fleetwood said. ‘The tournament is four days but it’s clearly in Brian’s hands.’
The exasperation for Fleetwood is that this was a day when there was little wind and soft greens. For a ball-striking master like him, the links were ripe for the taking, as demonstrated by Rahm.
Until Saturday, the Spaniard’s week had been littered with minor tantrums, including one about the camera crews on Thursday, but this was a different version of the world No 3. He ticked off the front nine in a steady two under, reaching even for the tournament, before he then ignited with an inward 30 made up of six birdies.
His play from the tee had been reasonable if unspectacular; his eight birdies came from a cumulative 106 feet of putts and was decisive. McIlroy, 17 groups behind, would have paid a decent LIV signing-fee for some of that action on the greens.
The Northern Irishman started well enough, with three birdies through five to get to four under, but it soon developed into another of those other occasions with which we have been too familiar in the past nine years since his fourth major win.
Jon Rahm jumped to third with a bogey-free 63 been littered with minor tantrums throughout the week
Rory McIlroy’s third-round 69 left him nine back and he declined to speak to the media
His play tee to green was just about the best in the field, his wedges were sharper than they had been in the US Open last month, but the putts did not drop. On no fewer than six holes, including the last, he missed from inside 13 feet. Drive for show, putts that turned his mind to dough.
Throwing in a bogey at the 12th, he had somehow contrived to finish with a 69, improving his score to three under. The wait will almost certainly extend to a 10th year.
Home interests were better served by the charge of Alex Fitzpatrick, the younger brother of former US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick. Nothing gets you out of a shadow like a 65 built on seven birdies. The elder Fitzpatrick carded 67 to sit two back.
Cameron Young, last year’s runner up, shot a brilliant 66 to stand as the foremost challenger to Harman, while Viktor Hovland, also chasing his first major after so many near-misses, is tied fourth on five under, alongside Jason Day.