Brooks Koepka and Justin Rose lurk with Open leaders in their sights | Any Bull

Shane Lowry has a big lead but, should he falter, Rose and Koepka will be right there behind, waiting for their opportunity

When dusk closed in over Royal Portrush, Brooks Koepka was busy on the putting green, working to fix the stroke that has broken down on him this week. Koepka is convinced that, if he can just get it running again, he can still win this Open Championship. He is seven shots back from Shane Lowry but Koepka is not the kind who quits, especially given the heavy weather, and the heavy pressure, that Lowry is going to have to deal with on Sunday. And besides, Koepka said cold-bloodedly, he still remembers what happened “the last time Shane had the lead at Oakmont”, when he blew a four-shot lead in the US Open in 2016.

“I’m looking at the top spot, that’s it, that’s the only thing I’m looking at,” Koepka said. Given how badly he has been putting, it is extraordinary he is still in contention for it. On Saturday he missed a string of mid-range putts, the costliest of them at the 13th, where he dropped a shot for the first time in 27 holes, and 15th. At that point he had dropped to seven under and his chances were fading fast but Koepka is tough as they come and he finished his round with back-to-back birdies, the second of them made with a 25ft putt on the 18th, and they hauled him back into it.

Koepka is not missing by much. Most of those putts finished within inches of the hole. “There’s some weeks where you just don’t make anything,” he said. “They feel like good putts when they come off the blade. But they’re burning the edge. That’s the only thing I can say. They feel like good putts. They’re all tap-ins.”

Koepka’s Saturday partner, Justin Rose, is right there beside him on nine under. It has been a rough week for the favourites at Royal Portrush. There were 14 major winners on the wrong side of the cutline, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott among them. At the end of it Rose and Koepka are the two men left nearest to Lowry who everyone knows have what it takes to win a major. That gives them a lot of self-confidence in the bad weather that is coming on Sunday, when the wind is going to be up around 35mph.

“Thankfully, it’s going to blow tomorrow,” Koepka said. “I need it. I need some wind, I need some rain. I need anything that can kind of go my way.” Rose agreed with that: “I think in my situation you almost need it. It offers you a little bit more hope than if it was a benign day.” But he was a little more generous to the man he needs to beat than Koepka had been. “The thing is with Shane, he’s got a great short game and that will stand him in good stead on a tough weather day. If there is a tough-weather-day player, it is probably him. But that still doesn’t make it easy trying to win a major in conditions like that.”

Rose ground his way round the front nine in level par which, he said, was a couple of shots shy of where he wanted to be. It could have been worse. His best play came on the 4th and 7th, where he made a couple of brilliant par saves. On the 4th he had to chop his way out of the rough on to the front of the green, chip in and then make a 25ft putt, and on the 7th, playing his second out of the rough again, he rolled a lovely lag putt from 70ft to leave a tap-in. But then it all came together for him on the back nine, where he followed an eagle on the 12th with birdies on the 13th and 15th.

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Rose did drop a shot on the 16th, “which is a shame because I made a mental target of getting to 10 under”. He feels as if he has the angles all worked out. “I never thought that I’d be leading but I thought if I got to 10 under I might be four back, and the most important thing about that is it means there aren’t too many guys ahead of me. So if I do play a great round of golf in tough weather, I won’t have to run through a whole bunch of guys, I’ve just got one or two guys to chase. And you just never know what kind of day they may or may not have in tough weather.”

As Rose said: “You never know what the leader is going to do. If a guy goes ahead and continues to play great, you tip your hat and say: ‘Well done.’” Otherwise, he and Koepka will be right there behind him, waiting for their opportunity. And, as Koepka says: “In links golf all of a sudden a couple of bad bounces and you never know.” Out here, he added pointedly, “it can get out of control very quickly”.


Andy Bull at Royal Portrush

The GuardianTramp

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