HOYLAKE, England—Brian Harman found himself in elite company through two rounds at Royal Liverpool, tying the 36-hole record also held by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. Even better was having no company at all atop the leaderboard Friday in the British Open.
Harman seized control early with four straight birdies, and saved his best for the final hole. He ripped a 5-iron to 15 feet for eagle, giving him a 6–under 65 that was good for a five-shot lead over Tommy Fleetwood going into the weekend.
Not since Scottie Scheffler at the 2022 Masters has a player led a major by five shots through 36 holes. The last player to lead the British Open by five at the halfway point was Louis Oosthuizen at St. Andrews in 2010. Both went on to win handily.
“I understand a lot can happen at an Open, but eight shots is a lot of shots to spot a player who’s playing really well,” said Jordan Spieth, who lost three shots on the back nine for a 71 that left him eight behind. “But I think we’ll just have to look at what Brian will do. He’s in control now. It’s on him.”
McIlroy had even more ground to make up. He figured a round in the 60s would have put him right back in the mix. He lost his spark around the turn and only a birdie at the par-5 18th allowed him to break par with a 70. He was nine shots behind in his quest to end nine years without a major.
Harman’s 65 matched the lowest score for Royal Liverpool, which is hosting the Open for the 13th time. He was at 10–under 132, the same score Woods in 2006 and McIlroy in 2014 had when they went on to win the claret jug.
United States’ Brian Harman speaks at a press conference following the completion of his second round during the second day of the British Open Golf Championships at the Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England on July 21, 2023. (Jon Super/AP Photo)
Harman cared only about a little food, a little sleep and not thinking about much more.
“I’ve had a hot putter the last couple days, so try to ride it through the weekend—36 holes to go, so try to rest up and get ready,” Harman said.
The key to Saturday might be to stay dry with rain in the forecast.
Sepp Straka had six birdies over his last seven holes—the other was a bogey—for a 31 on the back nine that gave him a 67. He was alone in third place, six shots behind Harman.
Fleetwood made back-to-back birdies on the back nine to get within four shots of Harman, only to find a bunker to the left of the 16th fairway. He could only splash out and had to hit a superb pitch to save bogey. He scrambled for par on the final two holes for his 71.
Fleetwood, who grew up about 45 minutes away in Southport, had massive support from the gallery in the northwest of England. He knows about big deficits in the Open, having started four shots behind Shane Lowry at Royal Portrush in the final round in 2019.
At least this time he still has 36 holes.
“Brian had two amazing days,” Fleetwood said. “He’s a long way in front. Of course there’s a long way to go. But still, for myself and everybody else playing, it’s just do your thing, play one shot at a time. … You just have to keep playing until it’s over and see where you finish.”
The course remained tough, even though the R&A chose to rake sand in the bunkers toward the edges to keep golf balls from rolling next to the edges of the steep, revetted sides. Such situations led to big numbers in the opening round.
“It played tough—it played really, really tough,” McIlroy said. “Ten-under par is unbelievably impressive out there. We’ll see what the weekend holds. But after two days I’m actually pretty happy with my two days’ work.”
At least he has two more days.
Dustin Johnson shot an 82, his worst score in a major since the final round at Pebble Beach that cost him a chance in the 2010 U.S. Open. Justin Thomas rebounded from his 82 with a 71 that was all about momentum—he is playing next week in Minnesota as he tries to qualify for the PGA Tour’s postseason.
Over the final hour, the only drama was who would survive the cut at 3–over 145.
Scheffler, the world’s No. 1 player who has not finished worse than 12th this year, delivered a clutch moment when he got up-and-down from a bunker on the par-5 18th for birdie. That gave him a 74 to make the cut on the number.
Patrick Cantlay, the No. 4 player in the world, was one outside the cut line when he chipped in for birdie on the par-3 17th and made it. Defending champion Cameron Smith was one over the cut when he hit a 6-iron that curled around the top edge of a bunker to 2 feet for eagle.
“I think the scorecard is a long way off how the game feels,” Smith said. “It’s been a frustrating couple of days.”
That’s what made Harman’s round so impressive. A pint-sized lefty with Georgia grit, Harman has done the best at keeping the ball in play—on grass, not pot bunkers—and he has made only one bogey through 36 holes.
His start got everyone’s attention—birdie putts from 20 feet on the second, 25 feet on the third, 18 feet on the fourth. And then he went long on the par-5 fifth, only to watch his chip bang into the pin and stop inches away for the easiest birdie of all.
He also chipped in for par on No. 12 when he had to hit backward from a fairway bunker, and his two par saves on the 16th and 17th set him up for his big finish.
Harman had the 54-hole lead at Erin Hills in the 2017 U.S. Open, only to close with a 74 as Brooks Koepka blew past him to win the first of his five majors. Harman says he was guilty of thinking too much about the lead, a mistake he hopes not to repeat.
Most surprising to Harman, who is No. 26 in the world, is that he hasn’t won in six years and only has two PGA Tour titles. He hasn’t contended in a major since the 2017 U.S. Open, and registered only one other top 10, a year ago at St. Andrews.
He was so frustrated after missing the cut at the Masters this year that he didn’t touch a club for three days and instead went hunting, his passion, killing a pig and a turkey.
That prompted one Scottish reporter to pose a question unlike any other at the British Open: “I take it the sheep and the cows are safe around here at the moment, are they?”
“Sheep don’t taste as good as the turkeys do, I would imagine,” Harman replied.
By Doug Ferguson