After a terrific couple of days play at Hoylake, the 151st Open Championship has a runaway leader sat at the top of the leaderboard; but not a player many would have expected.
Brian Harman is the man in question and after opening with an excellent 4-under 67 on Thursday, he followed up with an even better 6-under 65 on Friday; getting to -10 for the tournament and allowing him to open up a commanding 5-shot lead at the halfway stage.
He started off his day in breezy conditions, reeling off four birdies on the spin on holes 2-5. Harman barely put a foot wrong thereafter, scrambling well when he needed to – ranking 1st on the greens and 3rd around them on the day – and got rewards for his patience by closing with a sensational eagle 3 on the final hole.
The tenacious Georgia native had been in good form prior to this event and was most recently seen contending for the Scottish Open last week, before dropping down the leaderboard on a trying final day. He’s a player who’s started to get the hang of links golf too, as in the last two years he’s recorded finishes of 19th and 6th – his two best finishes in the event.
I’m fascinated to see how he handles this positions over the weekend. Trends suggest he’ll be a hard man to beat from here on in, something I’m inclined to agree with due to the steadiness of his ball-striking and classiness of his short-game. However this is The Open Championship and this course has already chewed up and spat out brighter stars than Harman this week.
With the challenging weather set to continue today – the wind joined by unwelcome rain – he’s bound to face his fair share of adversity and there’s plenty of contenders close enough to capitalise if the situation starts to get away from a man who hasn’t tasted victory for six years.
Current Top 10:
1st – Brian Harman -10
2nd – Tommy Fleetwood -5
3rd – Sepp Straka -4
T4 – Min Woo Lee -3
T4 – Shubhankar Sharma -3
T4 – Jason Day -3
T7 – Adrian Otaegui -2
T7 – Emiliano Grillo -2
T7 – Jordan Spieth -2
T7 – Cameron Young -2
The Open Championship often proves a bit of a leveller and we have a typically eclectic leaderboard, including Harman himself.
Links specialist, Tommy Fleetwood is his nearest challenger and there wouldn’t be a more popular winner than the (relatively) local man this week. He’ll love the conditions over the weekend, though I
suspect he’s going to have to start driving the ball a little better to not just catch Harman but hold off any would be challengers coming from behind.
Recent John Deere Classic winner, Sepp Straka made an incredible six birdies in his final seven holes yesterday to jump up into 3rd and as well as looking at taking home a first major title, the Austrian will be hoping to solidify his claims for a spot on that European Ryder Cup team in Rome.
Of the rest of that top ten we have two majors champions in Jordan Spieth and Jason Day; two young stars with impressive links pedigrees in Min Woo Lee and Cameron Young; whilst the other three players show the randomness of these leaderboards – Grillo aside, as he has some good form in this event – with the out of form Shubhankar Sharma and Spain’s Adrian Otaegui two names few would’ve expected to hit these heights on the leaderboard this week.
Outside of this top 10 we have the likes of Rory McIlroy, who has battled fantastically over the first two rounds and is in a good position to make a weekend charge; local favourite Matthew Jordan continues to perform impressively under the pressure he must be feeling at his home course; whilst two veteran Open Champions, Stewart Cink and Henrik Stenson, should not be underestimated.
Ultimately, for as good as Harman has looked, Hoylake is taking no prisoners this week. As we’ve seen from players such as Dustin Johnson – whose +13 had him finishing tenth-last this week – along with Shane Lowry, Justin Rose, Tony Finau and the continued struggles of Justin Thomas, all players who missed the cut. If Harman starts to fall backwards, there’s a whole host of names still in this tournament.
On a personal note, the first couple of days have been challenging, with Viktor Hovland in 25th, ten off the lead, our best-placed player after 36. Adrian Meronk (30th), Bryson DeChambeau (39th) and Patrick Cantlay (62nd) all make the cut too and along with Hovland, need to make a serious move today to be in any kind of contention.
Being in a less-than-idea position with my pre event selections, I’ve had a look at the outright market and due to the superb level of ball-striking he’s shown over the first two rounds in Liverpool, I’ve decided to add Cameron Young at the halfway stage.
Cameron Young 28/1 – 1/5 4 places – 1 pt ew
After starting the year strongly, Young had been out of sorts since finishing 7th in The Masters – an event for which he went off as a 25/1 shot – though he’d shown some positive signs over recent weeks.
He hit the ball well at the US Open when finishing 32nd and last time out finished 6th in the John Deere Classic. Where he drove it well, ranking 5th OTT but perhaps more importantly, produced his best putting performance since The Masters, despite a poor final round with the club.
Young has carried this positivity with his ball-striking over into this week, currently ranking 1st in approach and in greens-in-regulation and is 6th with the driver. The putting woes returned in round one, though he improved somewhat yesterday and I’m hoping he can step it up again today.
This strong halfway position in The Open for Young shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as he pushed Cameron Smith all the way last year at St Andrews to finish 2nd on his Open debut.
He’s got himself into a good spot at the halfway point here and if he continues to hit the ball as well as he did yesterday, whilst finding further improvements on the greens, he can make a run at this
championship over the weekend. Considering the prices he was going off a couple of months ago and the 50/1 starting price this week, he looks good value to do so from a contending position at this stage.
Joost Luiten & Kurt Kitayama to win their 2-balls
In the cold, wet and windy conditions that are going to hit the course today, I’m going for a couple of players who’ve driven the ball much better than their playing partners so far this week, for a 2-ball double.
Joost Luiten is hitting the ball as well as he has done in years so far in 2023, ranking 10th with the driver, 14th in greens-in-reg and 27th in approach on the DP World Tour.
He’s carried a similar level of performance over into this week, ranking 5th in greens hit and 33rd with the driver; whilst it’s also encouraging to see how strong he’s been around the greens, ranking 13th in scrambling.
In contrast, his playing partner today, Jordan Smith, ranks 85th off-the-tee after the opening two rounds and has been much worse at getting the ball up and down, ranking 139th in scrambling.
Luiten has the superior links form, with a 5th in a tricky 2015 Scottish Open a standout performance, as well as a best of 32nd in this event in 2019 compared to Smith’s best of 47th. If both continue to hit the ball as they have over the first two days, I expect the Dutchman to finish higher than his English counterpart on Sunday.
Similar differences are on offer between Kitayama and his playing partner, J.T Poston so far this week. Kitayama has driven the ball very well so far, ranking 18th, whereas Poston sits at 110th in the rankings. Both have hit a similar amount of greens but Kitayama has been much better around them, ranking 47th to Poston’s 114th.
The two players have limited experience in this event, though have both recorded quality finishes in the Scottish Open in the last two years; Kitayama finishing 2nd last year and Poston 6th this.
However, I’m attracted to Kitayama’s ability to grind on challenging courses and in challenging conditions, with two of the three biggest wins of his career coming in single-digits under par winning scores; in Oman in 2019, where he handled the wind to win with a score of -7 and then he won on the PGA Tour for the first time this year in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, shooting -9.
These experiences should serve him well today and hopefully form part of a winning double with Luiten.