Is it over?

British Open 2023: There’s only a 17-percent chance Brian Harman blows his 36-hole lead, according to history


Ross Kinnaird

July 21, 2023

HOYLAKE, England — Brian Harman, please don't read this—it will make you too complacent. And if you're someone like Tommy Fleetwood or Sepp Straka or Min Woo Lee or Shubhankar Sharma trying to catch Brian Harman … well, you might not want to read this either, for fear of feeling utterly hopeless.

The key fact here is that after a brilliant opening 36 holes that saw him finish at 10 under, and an afternoon in which nobody could make a true run up the leaderboard, Harman now holds a five-shot lead over his nearest competition, Tommy Fleetwood.

That lead, five shots, passes a rare threshold in major championships that takes it from "uncommon" to "historic." In the history of all four majors, with the caveat that we're only counting when they've been contested over 72 holes (starting in 1892 at the Open, and in 1958 at the PGA Championship), only 12 players have ever held a 36-hole lead of exactly five shots. Ten of those players have won. Here's the short list of winners:

Scottie Scheffler, 2022 Masters
Jordan Spieth, 2015 Masters
Louis Oosthuizen, 2010 Open Championship
Nick Price, 1994 PGA Championship
Raymond Floyd, 1976 Masters
Jack Nicklaus, 1975 Masters
Gary Player, 1974 Open Championship
Herman Keiser, 1946 Masters
James Braid, 1908 Open Championship
Willie Anderson, 1903 U.S. Open

The only two players to blow a five-shot lead are Bobby Clampett in 1982, who shot 78-77 over the weekend as Tom Watson won the Open Championship, and Henry Cooper at the 1936 Masters (the third Masters ever), whose final-round 76 handed Horton Smith his second win at Augusta.

That's the statistical good news for Harman. The bad news is that if he had a six-shot lead, he would rest comfortably in the knowledge that at least in the last 100 years, no player has ever blown a 36-hole lead that large in a major. Here are the five winners that meet the criteria of leading by six shots or more:

Brooks Koepka, 2019 PGA Championship: 7 shots
Martin Kaymer, 2014 U.S. Open: 6 shots
Rory McIlroy, 2011 U.S. Open: 6 shots
Tiger Woods, 2000 U.S. Open: 6 shots
Henry Cotton, 1934 Open Championship: 9 shots

That said, there have been two instances of a blown 36-hole lead of six shots, and they happened at this very tournament. It's just that they happened a very, very long time ago. Golf was, to put it mildly, significantly weirder and more volatile in those days. Nevertheless, here are the two men who got the job done.

Abe Mitchell, 1920 Open Championship: six-shot lead lost with 84-76, George Duncan wins
Sandy Herd, 1895 Open Championship: six-shot lead lost with 82-85, J.H. Taylor wins

(The irony here is that although the six-shot 36-hole lead has been safe for a full century, that same lead after 54 holes isn't quite as certain—just ask Greg Norman.)

But if Harman might bemoan that he didn't have that extra shot, taking him from an 83 percent chance of victory to virtual certainty, he can be extremely grateful that Fleetwood didn't reduce the lead to four shots. At that point, historically, things get extremely uncomfortable: In the 29 instances where a player led by exactly four shots after 36 holes, only 11 of them won, for a winning percentage of 37.93 percent. In other words, that one extra shot propelling Harman to a five-shot lead more than doubled his chances to win.

Just for fun, here’s the full list of players who held exactly a four-shot lead after 36 holes, and where they finished in the end. The winners are in bold. Interestingly enough, the PGA Championship has been poison to those with a four-shot lead; none have won in five tries, including Tiger Woods.


Henry Picard - 1935 - 4th
Ed Dudley - 1938 - t-6
Jim Ferrier - 1950 - 2nd
Cary Middlecoff - 1955 - win
Ken Venturi - 1956 - 2nd
Arnold Palmer - 1964 - win
Seve Ballesteros - 1980 - win
Jack Nicklaus - 1981 - 2nd
Greg Norman - 1996 - 2nd
Mike Weir - 2003 - win
Chris DiMarco - 2005 - 2nd

PGA Championship

Tommy Aaron - 1967 - T-20
Gil Morgan - 1976 - T-8
Tom Watson - 1978 - T-2
Greg Norman - 1986 - 2nd
Tiger Woods - 2009 - 2nd

U.S. Open

Tom McNamara - 1909 - 2nd
James Barnes - 1921 - win
Dustin Johnson - 2018 - 3rd

Open Championship

J.H. Taylor - 1900 - win
Harry Vardon - 1902 - T-2
Harry Vardon - 1903 - win
George Duncan - 1911 - 8th
Fred Daly - 1947 - win
Henry Cotton - 1948 - win
Fred Daly - 1952 - 4th
Billy Casper - 1968 - 4th
Tiger Woods - 2005 - win
Rory McIlroy - 2014 - win

That last name, Rory McIlroy, might be of particular interest to Harman. McIlroy’s lead was one less than Harman’s, but Rory still won, and the relevant fact there is that he did it right at Royal Liverpool. Heading into the weekend, Harman will be hoping that the old adage is true … history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Thanks to Rick Gehman of for help in compiling this information

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Is it the British Open or the Open Championship? The name of the final men’s major of the golf season is a subject of continued discussion. The event’s official name, as explained in this op-ed by former R&A chairman Ian Pattinson, is the Open Championship. But since many United States golf fans continue to refer to it as the British Open, and search news around the event accordingly, Golf Digest continues to utilize both names in its coverage.