Every major tournament has the cruel, sharp power to humble golf’s stars. Rory McIlroy at the Masters. Justin Thomas at the PGA Championship. Phil Mickelson at the US Open (OK, make that a lot of them).
This British Open seemed awfully vindictive, more hostile and mocking of the sport’s powers than recent majors — until Jon Rahm mounted the kind of Saturday stomp that propels a player into the record books and closer to contention.
The world’s third-ranked player had stumbled to a three-over-par 74 on Thursday at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, good for 89th overall. A 70 on Friday moved him up 50 places. He arrived at the course a dozen shots off Brian Harman’s lead. But when Rahm finished his Saturday round with a birdie just after Harman made a solitary, quiet walk to the first tee to begin his, the gap between the men, one a two-time major winner, the other an also-ran, was down to four.
Before night fell on England’s west coast, where rain and wind were sporadic threats on Saturday, Harman had pushed his margin over Rahm up to six, which could put him in line to hoist the newly-engraved claret jug on Sunday night. Cameron Young was closest to Harman, five strokes back.
But Rahm’s Saturday 63 was two shots off the record for an Open at Royal Liverpool, which is hosting the tournament for the 13th time. It was also a powerful response to two days of largely ho-hum play by many of the world’s marquee golfers at the Open, where the leaderboard had often felt like a glimpse into the depths of the game.
“I gave up chances at major championships, which are very expensive, and that’s mainly it,” Rahm said Saturday. “That’s what I felt. I knew I was playing better and I knew my swing and my game felt better than the scores I was shooting.”
Saturday, a celebration of imaginative shotmaking, was different.
Often, Rahm noted, the world’s best visualize what they want to happen with this or that image. Often, he noted, reality intrudes. But his Saturday, he suggested, had been marked by the feeling of seeing “everything that was meant to happen unfold.” At one point on Saturday, he said in Spanish that he had “felt invincible.”
He got his debut birdie of the day on the fifth hole and added another on the ninth. Another came on the 10th, and it was about then, he later recalled, that his shot began to hurtle downwind. He picked up several birdies on the 11th and 12th holes, two more on Nos. 15 and 16, and the final one on the 18th worked the crowd into a roar.
Until Rahm’s rise on Saturday, disappointment had been close to endemic among the sport’s top players, not because many stars wouldn’t win, but because they wouldn’t even come close.
The first five pairings on Saturday — the players who came closest to missing the cut — included Scottie Scheffler (the current world No. 1), a five-time major champion (Brooks Koepka) and one of the game’s most chronically popular figures (Rickie Fowler).
The last five pairings on Saturday? The players most clearly positioned to contend? Koepka alone had more major titles than the entire group, which entered Saturday with an average world ranking of 59th, 40 places lower than the average for last summer’s third round at St. Andrews.
The top of the leaderboard was soon packed with headliners and headliners-in-waiting. Young, runner-up at last year’s Open, finished at seven under, one stroke ahead of Rahm. Jason Day, a former world No. 1, Tommy Fleetwood and Viktor Hovland were among the players on five under. McIlroy, currently ranked second in the world, carded a 69 to move to three under.
But it’s still been a strange week, after a Friday cut that knocked out a number of recent majors, including Mickelson, Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Collin Morikawa. Other top players, including Scheffler, Koepka, Fowler and Patrick Cantlay, barely made the weekend.
“Maybe everybody’s just not quite on their thing this week,” said Cameron Smith, the winner of last year’s Open, who brought his score to one under Saturday when he shot a 68. “I’m not really sure of the answer there. But the bunkers, I think if you try to be aggressive – and generally the big winners are aggressive players – it can bite you in the butt.”
All many players could do was look to get through Sunday.
“Win?” said Scheffler, who would be 16 strokes off the lead at the end of the third round.
“A hurricane and then I think that’s what it takes for me,” he added on one of the few big Saturdays where he finished before the leaders even stepped up to the first tee. “I’m just going to go out tomorrow and do my best and move up the rankings and try to have a good day.”
Robert MacIntyre, runner-up at last weekend’s Scottish Open, was also withdrawn. On Saturday afternoon, his thoughts were already wandering towards the hours after the tournament.
“Know you have 18 holes before you put your feet up,” he said.
Rahm, revived, was a very different place.
“I’ve done what I’ve needed to do,” he said, “which is to give myself an opportunity.”