Brian Harman And The Magnitude Of A Five Stroke Lead

Brian Harman, 2023 Open Championship, Royal Liverpool,Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Brian Harman, 2023 Open Championship, Royal Liverpool,Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

In Major Championship golf, five strokes isn’t the magic number. Five strokes is way better than that. As Brian Harman sleeps on his five-stroke lead at the halfway point of the Open Championship, it may be unfair to the field to say that the title chase is functionally over.

Go back far enough in history and you can find instances of people blowing five-shot advantages.

But you have to reach pretty deep into the record book to do so.

Brian Harman concluded the first half of the season’s final Major at Hoylake Friday with a 10-under score of 132. That gives him a five-stroke lead over Tommy Fleetwood, and a minimum seven-stroke lead over the rest of the field.

In the past decade – that’s since 2014 – there have been 38 Major championships decided. In only four of them was any player able to build as much as a five-stroke cushion through the event’s halfway point. All four went on to win, only one by fewer than three strokes.

So while Brian Harman still must show up this weekend – probably with a level of play that is somewhat better than going through the motions – he begins Saturday with a huge advantage.

This is how rare five-shot leads are at the 36-hole point of a Major. Since 2014 the only players who have commanded that much of an advantage were Martin Kaymer (six shots) at the 2014 U.S. Open, Jordan Spieth (five shots) at the 2015 Masters, Brooks Koepka (seven shots) at the 2019 PGA and Scottie Scheffler (five shots) at the 2021 Masters. Only Koepka – a two-shot winner over Dustin Johnson at Bethpage Black–faced any drama down the stretch.

Such leads are rarest of all at the world’s oldest Major title. No player has carried a five-shot lead into the halfway point of the Open since Louis Oosthuizen led by six at the halfway mark of the 2010 event at St. Andrews. He won by seven.

And no 36-hole leader at the Brit has lost even a three-shot 36-hole advantage – never mind five – in the lifespan of many of the world’s current top players. The last time a player took a lead of three or more strokes after the first two rounds of the Open and did not hoist the Claret Jug at the finish was back in 1984.

That year Ian Baker-Finch led by three through 36 holes at St. Andrews, but came home in 71-79. Seve Ballesteros, part of a three-way tie for second entering the weekend, beat Bernhard Langer and Tom Watson by two, with Baker-Finch falling into a tie for ninth.

Two years before that, Bobby Clampett endured the kind of collapse that is the only thing standing between Brian Harman and immortality right now. Clampett shot 67-66 to lead Nick Price by five in the 1982 event at Troon. But on the weekend, Clampett turned in cards of 78-77 to fall into a tie for 10th, four strokes behind Tom Watson, who had trailed Clampett by seven through 36 holes.

Is it asking too much of Harman, a journeyman American pro who hasn’t won since the 2017 Wells Fargo, to keep up his remarkable pace? The answer is almost certainly yes.

But that’s not a reflection on Brian Harman.

Harman very much fits into the large classification of tour pros who can be described in four words: “on any given week…” There are 100 guys in this field capable of winning the event, and he’s always been one of them. What really sets this week apart – so far, anyway – is the extent of the leader’s dominance.

Harman’s score of 132 – measured against the field average for four-round qualifiers of 142.66 – works out to 4.65 standard deviations worth of superiority. (One standard deviation for the four-round qualifiers at the halfway point equals 2.31 strokes.)

If Harman maintains that level of superiority, it would surpass the record for the largest standard deviation of dominance in any Major championship in the recorded history of golf. That record is held by Tiger Woods, who at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach famously lapped the field by a dozen strokes.

Woods’ showing worked out to 4.34 standard deviations better than the four-round field average at Pebble that week.

Next. The British Open, where the exceptional has become the routine. dark

This is not to predict that Brian Harman is two rounds from doing something nobody – including Woods – has ever done. Much can happen between now and Sunday night, and data has a natural tendency to modify over time.

Harman’s five-stroke lead may not even hold up. Bobby Clampett events are rare, but they can happen.

What it does do is take the measure of the extraordinary first two rounds that Harman has played.