Every major tournament has the cruel, short-lived power to humiliate golf stars. Rory McIlroy at the Masters. Justin Thomas at the PGA Championship. Phil Mickelson at the US Open (OK, do a lot of them).
This British Open looked hideously vindictive, more hostile and provocative of the sport’s powers than more recent majors – until Jon Rahm mounted the kind of Saturday stampede that propels a player into the record books and closer to contention.
The third-ranked player in the world dropped to 74 three-over-par on Thursday at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, good for all the 89th-ranked players. A 70 on Friday put him 50 spots ahead. He reached the field within a dozen strokes of Brian Harman’s lead. But when Rahm ended his round on Saturday with a birdie, just after Harman made a lonely, silent walk to the first tee to start his, the gap between the men, one a two-time major winner, the other also running, was down to four.
Before dusk on England’s west coast, where rain and wind were sporadic threats on Saturday, Harman increased his lead on Rahm to six, prompting him to hoist the newly engraved claret decanter on Sunday night. Cameron Young was closest to Harman, five strokes behind.
But Rahm’s Saturday 63 was, by two strokes, a record for an Open at Royal Liverpool, which is hosting the tournament for the 13th time. It was also a scathing response to two days of dull play by many of the world’s greatest golfers at the Open, where the leaderboard often felt like a glimpse into the depths of the game.
“I’ve given up competing in big championships that are very expensive, and that’s basically it,” said Rahm on Saturday. “That’s what I was feeling. I knew I was playing better and I knew my swing and game was better than the scores I was making.
Saturday, a party for creative shots, was different.
Often, Rahm noted, the best in the world visualize what they’d like to happen with this shot or that. Often, he noted, reality intrudes. But his Saturday, he suggested, was marked by the feeling of seeing “everything happen the way it was supposed to happen”. On Saturday, he said at one point in Spanish that he “felt invincible”.
He made the day’s debut birdie on the fifth hole and added another on the ninth. Another came on the 10th, and it was at this time, he later recalled, that his shots began to drift into the wind. He hit more birdies on the 11th and 12th holes, two more on the 15th and 16th and the last on the 18th, the crowd exploded.
Until Rahm’s rise on Saturday, disappointment was almost endemic among the sport’s best players, not because many stars wouldn’t win, but because they wouldn’t come close.
The top five duos on Saturday – the players closest to missing the cut – included Scottie Scheffler (current world No. 1), five-time major champion (Brooks Koepka) and one of the most popular figures in the game (Rickie Fowler).
The last five pairs on Saturday? The players most clearly positioned to compete? Koepka alone has had more major titles than the entire group, who entered Saturday with an average world ranking of 59th, 40 points below the average of last summer’s third round in St. Louis. Andrews.
The top of the leaderboard was soon peppered with headliners and waiting headliners. Young, who finished second at last year’s Open, finished seven under, one stroke ahead of Rahm. Jason Day, former world No. 1, Tommy Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland were among the five-under players. McIlroy, currently No. 2 in the world rankings, managed a 69 to go three-under.
But it was still a strange week, after a Friday cut that knocked out a number of recent great champions, including Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas. Other top-tier players including Scheffler, Koepka, Fowler and Patrick Cantlay barely made it into the weekend.
“Maybe everyone is not very focused this week,” said Cameron Smith, last year’s Open winner, who cut his score to one below on Saturday when he shot 68. “I’m not sure about the answer. But those bunkers, I think if you’re trying to be aggressive – and usually the big winners are aggressive players – they can bite you in the ass.”
All many players could do was try to get through Sunday.
“To win?” said Scheffler, who would be 16 strokes off the lead at the end of the third round.
“A hurricane and a few more I think is what it will take for me,” he added on one of the few major Saturdays he finished before the leaders even moved up to the first tee. “I’m just going to go out tomorrow and do my best and climb up the leaderboard and try to have a good day.”
Robert MacIntyre, runner-up at the Scottish Open last weekend, has also resigned. By Saturday afternoon, his mind was already wandering through the hours following the tournament.
“Know you have 18 holes before you put your feet up,” he said.
Rahm, revived, was in a very different place.
“I did what I had to do,” he said, “which is to give myself an opportunity.”