HOYLAKE, England — After 18 holes had passed on a wet and gloomy Saturday at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, Max Homa and Rory McIlroy were separated by only one shot, but their outlooks on their games felt worlds apart.
McIlroy beelined to the putting green as soon as he could after his finish. With onlookers peering out of the clubhouse windows, McIlroy wore his frustration on his face as his caddie, Harry, stood behind him on every practice putt and watched how he lined 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 inside 20, 15, even 10 feet. Both likely realized deep down inside that, with Brian Harman leading at 12 under and the two of them 9 and 10 shots back, they weren’t going to have a shot on Sunday.
Homa, however, was smiling. He was happy with his performance, how he stayed within himself on every shot when everyone around him was shouting 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, no one is watching you anyway today,’ which I quite like, if I’m being honest,” Homa said. “I obviously didn’t think of myself as like the antagonist, but he was clearly the protagonist today. I was kind of thinking if I could make this Ryder Cup team it would have obviously a very similar feel to it, 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 Sunday. Majors have not been his strength (he only has one top-15 finish in his career) and this year he missed the cut at his home U.S. Open in Los Angeles. A top-10 finish is well within his sights, as well as a more solidified spot on that U.S. Ryder Cup team.
For McIlroy, the equation is different. His major drought will likely extend to nine years on Sunday, and though he has had a season worthy of one of the three best players in the world, his results in majors since being surpassed by Cam Smith in the final round of last year’s Open have been a roller coaster of performances and emotions.
At the Masters, his desire to win was so strong that he played himself out of the tournament by 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 U.S. Open, it felt like everything was clicking. No putts dropped Sunday, and he lost by a single stroke in what felt like a redux of St. Andrews. On Saturday he birdied three of the first five holes, making it seem like he had a shot to give Harman a battle Sunday. Instead, he’ll 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 down the leaderboard. Take Cameron Young, who was realistic on Saturday when discussing his chances, knowing that he’ll have to get aggressive should Harman remain as steady as he’s looked all week.
“I think you just kind of have to see how the first couple holes play out tomorrow and then you maybe start aiming at things that you might not otherwise,” Young said. “I feel more in control of my game and equally 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 plenty of weight when it comes to the Ryder Cup. Young was likely on the bubble in terms of a captain’s pick. Finishing near the top of the leaderboard at a major will boost his chances to make the team significantly. A win, of course, would seal it.
Young isn’t 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 stands at 5 under, 7 shots back, going into Sunday. The Austrian is one of many names being bandied about for some of the last few spots on the European team for this year’s tournament in Italy. Straka has already won once this year, and a strong finish tomorrow would bolster his case.
“You’ve just got to go out there and try and 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 need 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 of 2022, Hovland has turned 2023 into his official coming-out party.
The 25-year-old from Norway finished inside the top 10 at the year’s first two majors and is now 5 under and 7 shots back of 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.
“To be able to put myself in position to win tournaments with not my A game, I think that’s been really cool,” Hovland said. “I think my short game has gotten a lot better, which has really allowed me to be able to do that.”
Who else needs a top-10 finish badly? No one more than Alex Fitzpatrick, perhaps. The brother of U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick may be the messier and less analytical one of the two, as Matt said earlier this week, but he’s the one playing better (two strokes better, in fact) and he’s the one with a shot to turn his first major championship appearance into two. A top-10 finish for Fitzpatrick would mean he gets to come back next year and play the Open at Royal Troon Golf Club, but to hear him talk, the result would be more important to his larger goal of getting his career heading in the right direction.
“It would be nice to finish high up. It would be nice to do well, but it’s more of a confidence thing,” Fitzpatrick said. “I’ve got a job to do for the rest of the year, which is try and get off the Challenge Tour. [Finishing high] would help.”
Despite all the names above, no single player on the leaderboard has the ability to actually track down Harman Sunday and possibly even win, more than Jon Rahm, who posted a historic round of 63 Saturday that was not just good enough for the new course record, but also good enough to put him in the penultimate group on Sunday, six shots out of the lead.
“That’s the best round I’ve played on a links golf course ever,” 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 visualize in your head and what you see is supposed to happen. It doesn’t happen often. … [Today] you see everything the way it’s supposed to happen unfold, and it’s very unusual.”
Rahm may be the most aggressive of the bunch come the final round, in part because he is one of the most aggressive golfers on tour, and also because there’s no downside to him going out swinging. It’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, which is give myself an opportunity. I’m going to go 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 is not playing for a check, fighting for a spot on a team or really doing anything besides trying to make history. He would not just 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 that golf felt like it was supposed to Saturday. The challenge of carrying that groove over to a new day is at the crux of what makes the sport so difficult. But if anyone can do it, it’s Rahm.