It was nearly noon on Friday when the name appeared on the British Open leaderboard.
Rory McIlroy was six strokes back, with 48 holes to settle whether his nine-year melodrama of major tournament heartache would last until at least next spring. By the time he walked off Royal Liverpool Golf Club’s 18th green on Friday afternoon, he trailed by nine, well behind a man without a major victory.
A comeback of such scale would not be without precedent at the Open. But with every putt that rolls away a near miss instead of for birdie, the world sees another McIlroy grimace, another ambition slipping a bit farther away.
“I might be nine back, but I don’t think there’s going to be a ton of players between me and the lead going into the weekend,” McIlroy said bravely after his round, which left him at one under par for the tournament.
“Right now it’s not quite out of my hands,” he added. “But at the same time, I think if I can get to 3-, 4-, 5-under par tomorrow going into Sunday, I’ll have a really good chance.”
There is a thicket of talent ahead of him, though, a field of contenders that took shape as England’s coastal winds strengthened and the course at Royal Liverpool toughened. Brian Harman recorded four consecutive birdies, beginning with the second hole, before turning a measure more ordinary. He made par on every hole until the 18th, where an eagle secured a 65 for the day and a tournament score of 10 under.
“I’m around the lead a bunch,” said Harman, who last won a PGA Tour event in 2017. “It’s been hard to stay patient. I felt that after I won the tournament and had the really good chance at the U.S. Open in 2017 that I would probably pop a few more off, and it just hasn’t happened.”
With a resurgent short game, though, Harman’s 36-hole score of 132 matched an Open record. Until Friday, it had belonged to Tiger Woods and McIlroy, dating to their 2006 and 2014 victories at Royal Liverpool. That 2014 tournament was Harman’s first Open, which occurred weeks before McIlroy won the P.G.A. Championship that so improbably remains his most recent major victory.
In the seven majors since the start of last year, McIlroy has finished in the top eight all but once. He was the runner-up twice, and he wound up in third at last year’s Open at St. Andrews, the pressure perpetually mounting for something more than a close finish.
Less than a week after a win at the Scottish Open, McIlroy arrived Friday thinking he required a second-round score in the 60s to have a chance of ending his misery. He recorded a 33 on the front nine, after beginning with a birdie on No. 1, the par-4 hole that includes a few of Royal Liverpool’s perilous bunkers. Even par on the back would be enough.
That, it turned out, was too much: McIlroy bogeyed two holes, among the most forgiving at the course known as Hoylake, and finished with a 70. For the second consecutive day, he saw short birdie putts escape the cup by the narrowest of margins.
“I don’t think I have to do anything differently,” McIlroy said. “I’m hitting the ball well from tee to green. I’ve missed a couple of chances on the greens. The wind got me today. It’s hard sometimes in two minds whether to play the wind or not to play the wind.”
The conditions will not be pristine throughout the weekend. Although the Met Office, Britain’s weather service, is expecting lower wind gusts, rain is expected on Saturday. The outlook for Sunday is unclear, with the potential for “heavier bursts” of rain.
That is expected to tax the 76 players remaining after the cut, which barely spared Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay, Rickie Fowler and Scottie Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked player. But it still claimed a collection of stars, including the past major champions Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas, who won last year’s P.G.A. Championship but missed three of four major cuts this year.
“Everybody has their waves, their kind of momentum and rides and rock bottoms, whatever you want to call it,” said Thomas, whose best major finish this year was a tie for 65th at the P.G.A. Championship in May. “I just keep telling myself, ‘This is it, I’m coming out of it,’ and I unfortunately have surprised myself a couple times with some bad rounds.”
Instead, far less familiar players were far closer to Harman. Shubhankar Sharma, who has never finished higher at a major than a tie for 51st, quietly assembled two rounds of par or better to stand at three under, just like Min Woo Lee. Jason Day, a former world No. 1, was tied with them after shooting a 67 on Friday.
Just ahead of them was Sepp Straka, who also carded a 67.
Tommy Fleetwood, the son of nearby Southport who began play on Friday with a share of the lead, finished at even par, putting him in second place and five shots behind Harman.
But the others who had led at sunrise faded. Emiliano Grillo made a double-bogey on the second hole and a bogey on the third. A meager recovery on the back nine collapsed when he bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes, leaving him with a 74 for the day and eight shots off the lead. Christo Lamprecht, a 22-year-old amateur from Georgia Tech, bogeyed five of the first seven holes on Friday, shoving him so far down the leaderboard that it was not entirely certain during his round that he would make the cut.
The theatrics were not limited to the golfers.
Just Stop Oil protesters, whose demonstrations disrupted Wimbledon earlier this month, surfaced on the 17th hole on Friday, setting off a smoke flare and spreading orange powder on part of the green. The R&A, which organizes the Open, said four people had been arrested, but that play had not been disrupted. In a separate statement, the police warned that “antisocial, criminal behavior or disorder will not be tolerated and will be dealt with robustly.”
The disruption did not unfold when anyone near the tournament’s lead was on No. 17. They were elsewhere, trying to conjure enough brilliance on the links to catch Harman.
McIlroy knows there are two factors at hand. The weather is one, perhaps the more predictable of the two.
The other, he said, is Harman.