PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland — Only one player can realistically prevent the biggest golfing party ever seen on the Emerald Isle from exploding into life at Royal Portrush on Sunday.
Tommy Fleetwood is ready for the challenge.
‘‘I know what it’s going to be like,’’ said Fleetwood, who will start the final round of the British Open in the last group for the first time in a major, four shots behind Ireland’s Shane Lowry. ‘‘I’ve had my fair share of support for the first three days. Hopefully there will still be some people out there rooting for me.’’
Fleetwood — easily identifiable because of his flowing locks and rock-star looks — is one of the nice guys in golf, hugely popular in Europe and increasingly across the Atlantic.
It will be one of the few occasions he’ll be playing the role of spoiler.
‘‘It’s going to be another chapter in my career, no matter what happens,’’ Fleetwood said. ‘‘And it’s going to be a very special day.’’
Fleetwood’s post-round comments were nearly drowned out by chants of ‘‘Olé, olé, olé’’ from jubilant fans walking away from the grandstand at the 18th hole after seeing Lowry complete his tournament-best 63.
On a remarkable day on the Dunluce Links, Lowry was serenaded with soccer-style songs in the kind of backdrop usually reserved for Ryder Cups.
Fleetwood, playing the next-to-last group ahead of Lowry, was swept along in the atmosphere. He didn’t do too bad himself.
A bogey-free 66 tied for the third-best round of the day — only Lowry and Danny Willett (65) shot better — and the fifth-best round of the week. So the 28-year-old Fleetwood, looking to win the first major of his career, wasn’t about to beat himself up about seeing a one-shot deficit to Lowry grow to four.
‘‘You can easily get frustrated because Shane is doing so well and how well he’s playing,’’ Fleetwood said. ‘‘But . . . you have to look at it realistically. I had a great day today.’’
It started with a mid-range birdie at No. 1 that briefly had him in a tie for the lead at 8 under par. He tapped in to pick up another shot at No. 4, before birdies at Nos. 7, 10, and 12 moved him into a share of the lead on each occasion.
The putts didn’t drop down the stretch, though, as he parred his way home. Meanwhile, Lowry birdied four of his last seven holes to pull away.
‘‘Tommy’s playing very well,’’ said Lee Westwood, another Englishman and Fleetwood’s playing partner Saturday. ‘‘He’s got his ball under control. If he’d had holed a few putts today, he’d have shot a really low score.’’
Indeed, Fleetwood did little wrong, hitting all but two greens in regulation and barely getting into any trouble.
He just didn’t play quite as well as Lowry.
‘‘I think the tournament has done itself proud today,’’ said Fleetwood, whose best finish in a major was tied for second place — a shot behind Brooks Koepka — at last year’s US Open. ‘‘They’ve shown how great the game is and how good it is to watch.
‘‘The atmosphere for us as golfers was just great. I loved it. For or against you, you can’t help but appreciate and love what today was, and what tomorrow is going to be.’’
Schauffele aims ire at R&A
Xander Schauffele was still running hot Saturday in the British Open, and it had nothing to do with a 69 that left him 11 shots out of the lead at Royal Portrush.
Schauffele accused The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of trying to ruin his image by not keeping private that his Callaway driver failed to conform to the limits of the trampoline effect. He says one player jokingly referred to him as a cheater, and he claimed he was not the only player whose driver didn’t pass this week’s random testing.
‘‘The R&A, they [ticked] me off because they attempted to ruin my image by not keeping this matter private,’’ Schauffele said. ‘‘This is me coming out and treating them the exact way they treated me.’’
Schauffele was among 30 players randomly selected to have his driver tested at Royal Portrush to make sure it conformed. Tiger Woods was on the list and gave a thumbs-up when asked if his driver passed the test.
Schauffele says he wasn’t aware his driver didn’t conform until notified. He worked into Tuesday evening to find a replacement, didn’t feel he had the right club when he opened with a 74, made adjustments, and followed with a 65 Friday. What bothered him was that the R&A didn’t test the entire 156-man field — and that the matter wasn’t kept private.
‘‘Other drivers failed,’’ he said. ‘‘This matter should be private. But the R&A didn’t do their job in keeping it private . . . It’s an unsettling topic. I’ve been called a cheater by my fellow opponents. It’s all joking, but when someone yells ‘Cheater’ in front of 200 people to me, it’s not going down very well.’’
Willett regaining form
Willett is back in a good place and it’s showing at Royal Portrush, where he’s headed for his best finish at a major since winning the Masters in 2016. Willett shot 6-under 65 that matched the second-best round of the week.
“It’s one of those where the juices are flowing,’’ said Willett, who hasn’t had the sensation much in the past three years.
The Englishman was a surprise champion at Augusta National after benefiting from a Sunday collapse by Jordan Spieth. A former top-ranked amateur, Willett was No. 9 in the world after his Masters win and his career was trending only one direction.
Then came the dark times. He tried to implement changes to his swing, while he also battled a back injury that led to him doubting if he could continue his career. He was ranked No. 462 midway through last year.
A big moment came in the final event on the European Tour last year when he won the World Tour Championship in Dubai, his first victory since Augusta. His tie for 12th at the US Open last month was his first top-20 finish in a major since that 2016 Masters.
‘‘We’re in a really good place,’’ said Willett, now ranked No. 75. ‘‘I’ve said it for the best part of 12 months now. It might be this week, next week, six months down, we don’t know. But there’s enough good in there to do it again, which is a nice feeling. It gives you that little bit of sunlight at the end of it.’’