Every major tournament has the bruising, laconic force of golf’s star humility. Rory McIlroy at the Masters. Justin Thomas at the PGA Championship. Phil Mickelson at the US Open (well, make that a lot of them).
This British Open was looking awful for revenge, more hostile and a mockery of the sport’s powers than the latest major tournaments – until John Rahm staged a kind of scramble on Saturday that propelled the player into the record books and near contention.
The world’s third-ranked player had a fumble Thursday of a three-over-74 at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, good for all 89. His par-70 on Friday pushed him 50 places forward. He hit the track with a dozen shots off Brian Harman’s lead. But when Ram finished Saturday’s run with a birdie, after Harman made a silent, solitary walk to the first tee to start his stint, the gap between the men, one a two-time major winner and one also a runner, dropped to four.
Before nightfall on England’s west coast, with rain and wind threatening sporadically on Saturday, Harman pushed his margin over the Ram to six, spurring him towards hoisting the freshly-dug claret jug on Sunday evening. Cameron Young was the closest to Harman, after five strokes.
But the 63rd Saturday for Ram was, by two laps, a record for the Liverpool Open, which is hosting the tournament for the thirteenth time. It was also a solid answer to two days of largely comical play by many of the world’s leading golfers at the Open, where the leaderboard often felt like a glimpse into the depths of the game.
“I’ve given up shots in the major leagues that were very expensive, and that’s basically it,” Ram said Saturday. “That’s how I was feeling. I knew I was playing better, I knew my swing and my game felt better than the scores I was hitting.”
Saturday, a celebration of fantasy bullet making, was different.
Ram noted that often the best people in the world imagine what they would like to happen in this or that shot. He noted that reality often intrudes. But he noted that his Saturday was marked by the feeling of seeing “everything the way it’s supposed to be.” On Saturday, he said at one point in Spanish, he “felt invincible.”
He made a birdie putt of his first day on the fifth hole, and added another on the ninth hole. Another came in the tenth, and it was at this time, he later recalled, that his shots began to run downwind. Picking up more birdies on the 11th and 12th holes, two more on the 15th and 16th and the last on the 18th, the crowd worked into thunder.
Until the Ram’s arrival on Saturday, disillusionment was verging on endemic among the sport’s top players, not because many superstars wouldn’t win but because they wouldn’t even come close to it.
Saturday’s first five encounters – the players closest to losing the cut – included Scotty Scheffler (currently world number one), a five-time reigning champion (Brooks Koepka) and one of the game’s most iconic characters (Rickie Fowler).
Another five pairs on Saturday? The most visible players to compete? Koepka alone has more major titles than the entire group, which entered Saturday with an average world ranking of 59th, 40 places lower than last summer’s third round average in St Andrews.
Soon the top of the leaderboard appeared with headliners and leaderboards waiting. Young, who finished second in last year’s Open, finished seventh, a stroke ahead of Ram. Former world number one Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood and Victor Hovland were among the under-five players. McIlroy, currently ranked second in the world, put on a 69 to go into third place.
But it was still a strange week, after Friday’s cut that knocked out a host of new big champions, including Mickelson, Thomas, Dustin Johnson and Colin Morikawa. Other top-flight players, including Scheffler, Koepka, Fowler and Patrick Cantlay, barely made it through the weekend.
“Maybe not everyone was quite right this week. I’m not really sure about the answer there. But those bunkers, I think if you’re trying to be aggressive — and major winners are generally aggressive players — it might bother you.”
All players can do is look forward to getting through Sunday.
“Wins?” said Scheffler, who will be 16 strokes from the lead at the end of the third round.
“A hurricane and then some I think it’s going to take me,” he added on one of the few main Saturdays he was doing before the leaders climbed to the first pole. “I’m just going out tomorrow and I’m going to do my best and work my way up the leaderboard and try to have a great day.”
Robert McIntyre, the runner-up at the Scottish Open last weekend, also quit. On Saturday afternoon, his mind was already wandering towards the hours after the tournament.
He said, “Know that you have 18 holes before you put your feet up.”
Ram, who was revived, was in a completely different place.
“I did what I needed to do,” he said, “which gives me a chance.”