Winning your first major is rarely easy and Tommy Fleetwood’s path to glory at the Open Championship this week certainly looks more complicated on Saturday morning than it did 24 hours earlier.
When he went to bed on Thursday evening, Fleetwood was co-leader of the tournament having shot a thoroughly professional five-under-par round of 66. He was atop the leaderboard alongside a South African amateur (Christo Lamprecht) and an Argentine without a top-10 finish in his major career (Emiliano Grillo), who would both inevitably fade.
Yet by the time the Englishman teed off for his second round on Friday afternoon, he was five strokes off the lead. Brian Harman – a 36-year-old from Georgia, USA – had torn up Hoylake with a brilliant 65 to climb to ten-under-par on a morning where scoring wasn’t even particularly low.
Fleetwood could have panicked and become overly aggressive in desperate pursuit of birdies to close the gap but patience is arguably the most important attribute for success in links golf and one the 32-year-old has been preaching this week.
This would prove a real test of how committed he is to that approach, even more so once his front nine contained eight pars and a bogey to drop another stroke behind. But he was rewarded for not overstretching himself as a monster birdie putt from almost 60 feet on the 10th helped inspire a back nine that also included birdies on the 14thth and 15thas well as hugely gutsy par saves on the final two holes – a putt from 11 feet at the 17th and an up-and-down from off the green at 18. A couple of additional bogeys were a slight setback but a battling 71 kept him in the tournament, five shots behind at five-under, and gives Harman pause for thought heading into the weekend.
The hunter – in the most literal sense, as one of Harman’s hobbies is slaughtering animals for sport – will become the hunted. Of course, Fleetwood would rather have a five-stroke lead than a five-stroke deficit but there was no hint of panic as he assessed his chances of overhauling a fellow golfer seeking his first major triumph.
“Brian has had two amazing days,” admitted Fleetwood. “He’s a long way in front but there’s a long way to go and still, for myself and everybody else playing, it’s just do your thing, play one shot at a time.
“We don’t know what the conditions are going to bring, and you just have to keep playing until it’s over and see where you finish.
“I’ve put in chases before in the past, and look, at the end of the day if somebody said you’re going out in the last group on Saturday, I don’t care what the situation was or what anybody had shot, I’d have probably taken it. That’s the way I look at it and I’m just looking forward to playing over the weekend.”
The last time the left-handed Harman had a legitimate shot at glory late in a major championship was leading the 2017 US Open heading into Sunday when, coincidentally, it was Fleetwood sitting in second place. Both men shot a final-round 72 and watched Brooks Koepka storm past them to take the first of his five major titles.
Fleetwood is a considerably better golfer now than he was six years ago – with six major top-five finishes and numerous tournament wins to his name – and, while Harman will also have learned from the experience, the American will be fighting a raucous Royal Liverpool crowd this weekend as a Merseyside native tries to overhaul him.
“I am one of them, one of the guys that’s out there,” Southport-born Fleetwood said earlier this week to explain the energy he is drawing from the spectators. “I’m a fan of the game, I’m from this area. Yes, I feel at home and to feel that support, it means a lot.
“Throughout the day, you can easily put too much pressure on yourself. You can easily try too hard. But just having that support and people egging you on, whether you’ve hit a good shot or a bad shot, good hole, bad hole, it just pushes you on. I’m very, very lucky to be able to play an Open so close to home.”
A glance at the leaderboard suggests there are still other players in the mix for the Claret Jug. Austria’s Sepp Straka is just one shot behind Fleetwood at four-under, there are a pair of Australians – Jason Day spirit Min Woo Lee – and India’s Shubhankar Sharma at three-under, while the always dangerous Jordan Spieth is loitering at -2.
But this tournament feels like a head-to-head between two men and although Harman has the scoreboard advantage, Fleetwood, like all good hunters, is just patiently waiting for his time to strike.
Elsewhere at Hoylake
While the morning was focused on Harman’s scintillating 65 that culminated in a stunning eagle at the 18th and afternoon attention was directed towards Fleetwood’s pursuit, Friday at the Open also saw plenty of other storylines.
Rory McIlroy’s expected charge didn’t quite materialise, although a birdie at the 18thth that sent the crowd wild did seal a one-under-par round of 70 to move him to one-under for the tournament. At nine strokes behind, he’ll need Harman to come back to the field but his hopes of a second Claret Jug on Sunday aren’t completely gone.
Two of golf’s biggest names needed heroics on the 18thth just to make the cut and seal their place at Hoylake for the weekend. Scottie Scheffler demonstrated some of the qualities that have seen him reach world No 1 by producing a brilliant up-and-down birdie from the bunker to qualify on the mark at +3. Defending champion Cameron Smith also stood on the 18th tee at +4 but went one better than Scheffler as a stunning second shot to within a couple of feet of the pin gave him a tap-in eagle to secure a Saturday spot at +2.
And finally, the par-three 17th has caused plenty of controversy this week with the newly-designed hole proving largely unpopular with players due to how tough it is to hold the green. But Australia’s Travis Smith will forever have good memories of the hole as he became the first man to make a hole-in-one there at the Open when his tee shot bounced once and landed at the bottom of the cup. Drinks all round!