HOYLAKE, England — A British tabloid dubbed Brian Harman “Brian the Butcher” because of his fondness for hunting and eating wild game.
But it was the American golfer’s deft short game and putting prowess that helped him match his best round in a major Friday and take a 5-stroke lead into the final 36 holes of the 151st Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club.
Harman, the 26th-ranked player in the world, carded birdies on four straight holes on the front nine and closed with an eagle on the par-5 18th to post a 6-under 65 in the second round. His 36-hole total of 10-under 132 matches those of the previous two Open winners at Royal Liverpool, Tiger Woods in 2006 and Rory McIlroy in 2014.
“I’ve had a hot putter the last couple days, so try to ride it through the weekend,” Harman said. “Thirty-six holes to go, so try to rest up and get ready. Delighted with how I’m playing. Just really focused on getting some rest and getting after it tomorrow.”
On a day when Harman went low, the links course wasn’t easy for everyone. England’s Tommy Fleetwood is the only player within 5 strokes of Harman at 5 under. Austria’s Sepp Straka, a former University of Georgia player like Harman, is 4 under. Australia’s Min Woo Lee and Jason Day and India’s Shubhankar Sharma are 3 under.
Fleetwood, who is seeking to win his first major, figures to have the most support from fans on the weekend. He grew up in Southport, about 30 miles from Royal Liverpool.
“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. 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.”
McIlroy, who is trying to end a nearly nine-year drought without a major victory, needed a birdie on the 18th to be 1 under after 36 holes. He is tied for 10th place entering the weekend.
“I might be nine back, but I don’t think there’s going to be a ton of players between me and the lead going into the weekend,” McIlroy said. “Depends what the conditions are tomorrow. Obviously, depends what Brian does as well. Right now it’s not quite out of my hands, but at the same time, I think if I can get to 3, 4, 5 under par tomorrow going into Sunday, I’ll have a really good chance.”
Harman might have to deal with difficult conditions as he tries to hold onto the sizable lead. There’s a 98% chance of rain Saturday and 85% for light showers Sunday.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, there have been 19 instances in major championship history when a player held a 36-hole lead of 5 strokes or more. All but four of them went on to win, including each of the past eight. The last player who failed to convert a 36-hole lead of 5 shots or more was Bobby Clampett at the 1982 Open Championship.
Jordan Spieth is 2 under and U.S. Open winner Wyndham Clark is 1 under, but many of the game’s biggest stars struggled to make the cut. Masters champion Jon Rahm is 2 over, while world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay and Adam Scott are on the cut line at 3 over. Also on the cut line was amateur Christo Lamprecht, who was tied for the lead after the first round but shot a 79 on Friday.
“I think we’ll just have to look at what Brian will do,” Spieth said. “He’s in control now. It’s on him. I watched some of his round. He’s made a ton of putts. He’s chipped in. He’s done what you need to around here, hitting fairways and greens as well. That gives yourself those 20-footers, and you have enough of them, you’re going to start holing them out here, and that’s what he’s doing.”
Harman would become only the third left-handed player to win The Open. Bob Charles (1963) and Phil Mickelson (2013) were the other southpaws who captured a Claret Jug.
Harman is a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, most recently at the 2017 Wells Fargo Championship. He has been in contention plenty of times since then but hasn’t won. He has 29 top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour since the start of the 2017-18 season, the most of any player without a victory. Fleetwood is second with 26.
“I’m not sure,” Harman said when asked why he hasn’t won more. “I think about it a lot, obviously. I’m around the lead a bunch. It’s been hard to stay patient. I felt that after I won the tournament and had the really good chance at the U.S. Open in 2017 that I would probably pop a few more off, and it just hasn’t happened. I’ve been right there, and it just hasn’t happened.”
This is not the first time Harman has held the lead after 36 holes at a major. At the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, Harman shared the 36-hole lead and had a 1-stroke advantage over Fleetwood, Koepka and Justin Thomas after 54. He posted an even-par 72 in the final round and tied for second, 4 strokes behind Koepka.
“Just not trying to get too caught up in it,” Harman said. “It’s just golf. I think when I held the 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open, I just probably thought about it too much. Just didn’t focus on getting sleep and eating right, so that would be my focus this weekend.”
Harman is one of the smallest players on the PGA Tour at 5 feet, 7 inches, and about 150 pounds. Koepka was able to overpower him at Erin Hills, which at the time was the longest course in U.S. Open history at 7,741 yards.
Playing links-style golf suits Harman’s game better. He came into the week ranked 142nd in driving distance at 294.1 yards. He was 14th in driving accuracy (67.2%) and second in bogey avoidance (12.3%). Through 36 holes at Royal Liverpool, he has found 75% of the fairways and carded just one bogey.
Harman’s best save of the second round came on the par-4 12th hole. He pulled his drive into a fairway pot bunker and had to pitch his ball out backward. He pulled his approach shot short of the green but chipped in from 52 feet. He will need more breaks like that to hang onto the lead this weekend.
McIlroy, a four-time major champion, was asked about the pressure of holding a big lead on golf’s biggest stage and what the next 48 hours will be like for Harman.
“Not getting ahead of yourself, not thinking about what could happen or what should happen or what you’re going to drink out of the Claret Jug,” McIlroy said. “You just have to stay in the present and stay in the moment. Brian is a pretty laid-back, unflappable sort of a guy, so I think he’ll be OK.”