Paolo UggettiESPN9 minutes of reading
HOYLAKE, England — After 18 holes on a wet and gloomy Saturday at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Max Homa and Rory McIlroy were only separated by one shot, but their views on their game felt separate.
McIlroy rushed to the putting green as soon as he could after his finish. As spectators looked out of the clubhouse windows, McIlroy wore his frustration on his face as his caddy, Harry, stood behind him on each practice putt and watched him line up. As soon as he missed one, McIlroy swung his putter in the air in disappointment as if he was still out there on the course.
It had been that kind of day for McIlroy. And Homa too. Both missed their share of putts within 20, 15, even 10 feet. Both probably realized deep down that with Brian Harman leading at 12 under and the two of them 9 and 10 shots back, they wouldn’t have a shot on Sunday.
However, Homa smiled. He was pleased with his performance, how he held his own on every shot when everyone around him was clamoring for McIlroy. Homa said he had to make a mental decision to accept his reality and try to thrive in it, almost using it as a test.
“I had a guy yell at me, ‘Hurry up, nobody’s seeing you today anyway’, which I like to be honest,” Homa said. “Obviously I didn’t think of myself as the antagonist, but he was definitely the main character today. I was kind of thinking that if I could make this Ryder Cup team, obviously it would have a very similar feel, so I thought this would be good practice for that if and when I can make that team.”
The 32-year-old still has plenty to play for on Sunday. Majors have not been his strength (he has only one top-15 finish in his career), and this year he missed the cut at his home US Open in Los Angeles. A top-10 finish is well within his sights, as well as a more solid spot on the US Ryder Cup team.
For McIlroy, the equation is different. His major drought is likely to stretch to nine years on Sunday, and while he has enjoyed a season worthy of one of the top three players in the world, his results in the majors since he was edged by Cam Smith in the final round of last year’s Open have been a rollercoaster of performance and emotion.
At the Masters, his desire to win was so strong that he played himself out of the tournament on Friday. At the PGA, he said he didn’t have his best game but still had an outside shot. It wasn’t meant to be. At the US Open, it felt like everything clicked. No putts dropped on Sunday, and he lost by a single stroke in what felt like a redux of the St. Andrews. On Saturday, he birdied three of the first five holes, making it look like he had a shot to give Harman a match on Sunday. Instead, he will now have to work for another top-10 finish at a major – his third this year and his eighth in the past two years.
What Harman has done at Hoylake has been impressive and it has colored the rest of the field with a bit of expectation management. Barring a complete collapse from the 36-year-old, Sunday will be about more than just the Claret Jug for several players in the rankings. Take Cameron Young, who was realistic Saturday when discussing his chances, knowing he’ll have to get aggressive if Harman remains as steady as he’s looked all week.
“I think you just have to see how the first couple of holes play tomorrow and then you might start aiming for things that you might not otherwise,” Young said. “I feel more in control of my game and just as in control of my mind and kind of that little extra level of focus and intentionality that you have in these situations.”
Even if Young can’t muster a 5-shot comeback, his performance this week already carries a lot of weight when it comes to the Ryder Cup. Young was probably on the bubble in terms of a captain’s choice. Finishing near the top of the rankings at a major will greatly increase his chances of making the team. A win, of course, would seal it.
Young is not the only one fighting for a Ryder Cup spot. On the other side of the aisle, Sepp Straka has also made some noise this week and is 5 under, 7 shots back, going into Sunday. The Austrian is one of many names being jostled for some of the last few spots in the European squad for this year’s tournament in Italy. Straka has already won once this year and a strong finish tomorrow would strengthen his case.
“You just have to go out there and try to shoot a low score,” Straka said. “You don’t have to do anything crazy because it’s just one guy up there. You just try to play your game and see what happens.”
One player who doesn’t have to worry about his Ryder Cup spot is Viktor Hovland. The story with him is much more about when, rather if, he will ever win a major. After finishing outside the top 25 and missing the cut at the first three majors in 2022, Hovland has turned 2023 into his official coming-out party.
The 25-year-old from Norway finished inside the top 10 at the first two majors of the year and is now 5 under and 7 shots behind Harman heading into Sunday. His chances are slim, but another top-10 finish for Hovland would give him his strongest year in the majors and make him one of several favorites to win one next year.
“Being able to put myself in a position to win tournaments without my A game, I think it’s been really cool,” Hovland said. “I think my short game has gotten a lot better, which has really allowed me to do that.”
Who else needs a top-10 ranking? None more so than Alex Fitzpatrick, perhaps. The brother of US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick may be the messier and less analytical of the two, as Matt said earlier this week, but he’s the better player (two strokes better, in fact) and he’s the one with a shot at turning his first major championship appearance into two. A top-10 finish for Fitzpatrick would mean he’ll be back next year to play the Open at Royal Troon Golf Club, but to hear him tell it, the result would be more important to his larger goal of getting his career moving in the right direction.
“It would be nice to finish high. It would be nice to do well, but it’s more of a confidence thing,” Fitzpatrick said. “I have a job to do for the rest of the year, which is to try to get out of the Challenge Tour. [Finishing high] would help.”
Despite all the above names, no single player on the leaderboard has the ability to actually track down Harman Sunday and possibly even win more than Jon Rahm, who on Saturday posted a historic round of 63 that was not only good enough for the new course record, but also good enough to put him in the penultimate group Sunday, six shots off the lead.
“That’s the best round I’ve ever played on a links golf course,” Rahm said. “We practice so hard and at least a lot of us expect certain things. It gets to a point where it’s like you’re visualizing in your head and what you see is supposed to happen. It doesn’t happen often… [Today] you see everything unfold as it’s meant to happen, and that’s very unusual.”
Rahm may be the most aggressive of the bunch in the final round, partly because he’s one of the most aggressive golfers on tour and also because there’s no downside to him going out and swinging. That’s how he went from 2 over at the start of his round today to 6 under by the end of the day.
“It feels really good, but it’s a lot of work to do tomorrow,” Rahm said. “I’ve done what I’ve needed to do, which is to give myself a chance. I’m going to eat, see my physio and enjoy some family time before we go to bed. It’s that simple.”
The third-ranked player in the world isn’t playing for a check, fighting for a spot on a team, or really doing anything besides trying to make history. Not only would he win his second major of the year – the first to do so since Brooks Koepka in 2018 – but he would also complete a comeback for the ages. Rahm, who came back from 9 strokes on the final day to beat Collin Morikawa at Kapalua earlier this year, said golf felt like it was meant to on Saturday. The challenge of carrying that groove over to a new day is at the heart of what makes the sport so difficult. But if anyone can do it, it’s Rahm.