Sep 12, 2023

British Open: Brian Harman cruises to his first career major victory

The knock on Brian Harman has been that he thinks to much. He's even admitted as much himself. It happened when he took a one-shot lead into the final round of the 2017 U.S. Open, when he was no match for Brooks Koepka that Sunday.

So when Harman, who hasn't won a tournament anywhere in six years, launched his drive on the par 5 fifth hole into a gorse bush, forcing him to take a penalty drop, suddenly his Sunday stroll to victory in the 151st British Open was in doubt. A bogey, his second on the day, meant the five-shot lead he'd taken into the round was down to three. With rain pouring down, Harman's mind presumably swirling and with the mighty Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm — the world's Nos. 2 and 3 ranked players — on the move, well, Harman looked in trouble.

Would he join the ranks of those who had major championships in their back pocket only to choke it away? Would he become another Jean van de Velde?

No, emphatically.

Harman answered the bogey at five with birdies at Nos. 6 and 7 and just like that, the Sunday stroll was back on.

A crowd of players behind him tried to step on the gas, but without Harman backing up, every charge proved futile. By the time Harman reach No. 13, the engraving of the Claret Jug had already begun.

Ninety minutes later, the 36-year-old native of Savannah, Georgia, was hoisting the jug as the Champion Golfer of the Year — a six-stroke winner over Rahm, Tom Kim, Sepp Straka and Jason Day.

"There were fleeting thoughts throughout the day, but I told myself I wasn't going to let any of that come into my brain," he said when asked when he started to think about winning. "So any time it came, I just thought of something else.

"I really honestly didn't think about winning until I had the ball on the green on 18."

Every major is really two separate tournaments: the Monday-to-Wednesday public relations battle, followed by the Thursday-to-Sunday golf. In the pre-LIV era, the first three days of a major week would focus on either 1) the history at that week’s course, 2) the new features at that week’s course, 3) the latest pseudo-scandal consuming golf (hoodies! Uniform-length clubs!), or 4) Tiger Woods.

But LIV has dominated every pre-tournament news cycle since early 2022: who’s in, who’s out, and what everyone thinks of golf’s existential upheaval. This year’s Open Championship marked the second major since the stunning PGA Tour-Saudi Public Investment Fund agreement news dropped in early June, meaning questions were less “What the hell just happened to golf?” and more “How does golf move forward from here?”

Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, England's equivalent to the USGA, gave a hint of golf’s new direction in his Wednesday pre-tournament state-of-the-Open speech, conceding that further Saudi investment in golf is not just a possibility but an inevitability. "The world of sport has changed dramatically in the last 12 months, and it is not feasible for the R&A or golf to just ignore what is a societal change on a global basis," Slumbers said. "We will be considering within all the parameters that we look at all the options that we have."

Slumbers also noted that he expected protest actions at this year’s tournament, expectations that were borne out Friday when “Just Stop Oil” protesters briefly disrupted play at the 17th hole. Security — and player Billy Horschel — quickly collared the protesters, and grounds crews used leaf blowers to clear off the confetti on the 17th.

As for the tournament itself, it started with 6-foot-8 amateur Christo Lamprecht and local hero Tommy Fleetwood bursting out to the early lead in Round 1. With a traffic jam right behind them, the tournament was up for grabs.

After Friday, there was much less doubt. Harman stepped to the tee on Friday morning and seized control of the entire Open. He reeled off four straight birdies from the second through fifth holes early on Friday, then eagled the 18th to take a monstrous five-shot lead over Fleetwood. On a day where most of the rest of the field spun its wheels, on a course whose cut claimed notables like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas, Harman reigned at the halfway mark.

Asked what Harman was facing with such an enormous lead midway through the Open, McIlroy offered some advice: “Not getting ahead of yourself, not thinking about what could happen or what should happen or what you're going to drink out of the Claret Jug. You just have to stay in the present and stay in the moment,” he said. “Brian is a pretty laid-back, unflappable sort of a guy, so I think he'll be OK.”

The tournament had its fair share of strangeness, from a bird using Viktor Hovland as a target to Wyndam Clark bouncing a shot off a fan’s iPad to players hearing TV commentary of shots they were about to hit.

But by the weekend, this Open had narrowed to Harman … and everyone else.

Rahm decided to throw a bit of fire into the tournament on Saturday, carding a Royal Liverpool-record 63 to reach 6-under. When Harman bogeyed two of his first four holes, the lead shrank to just two. But Harman found something inside himself, holing four birdies over the course of the rest of the round to reach 12-under and yet another five-stroke lead over Cameron Young.

With a second straight night of sleeping on the lead, Harman had even more time to reckon with the life-changing possibilities of a major victory. “You'd be foolish not to envision, and I've thought about winning majors for my whole entire life,” he said Saturday evening. “It's the whole reason I work as hard as I do and why I practice as much as I do and why I sacrifice as much as I do.”

After a sunny, breezy opening to the tournament, Sunday brought the nasty weather for which Opens are famous. Spitting rain soaked the course and brought out umbrellas. McIlroy, as is his tradition, began his Sunday charge from deep in the field, birdieing three straight holes to reach 6-under and move onto the front page of the leaderboard.

Harman, meanwhile, flinched early, bogeying the second hole after very nearly sending his approach out of bounds. Then came the bogey at five.

A birdie by Rahm at the fifth moved him to within three of Harman, with a lot of golf still to be played.

But Harman hadn’t gotten to this point without some grit. He drained a 13-foot birdie putt at six, then a 23-footer at seven for a second straight birdie.

On the week, Harman carded six bogeys. He followed four of those up with birdies, including this 40 footer at No. 14 to cap one of the most dominating performances in the history of golf's oldest major.

"I had a lot of success as a junior golfer," Harman said Sunday. "I won the U.S. Junior, and then as an amateur I was the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world for a good while, was the youngest American to get picked for the Walker Cup. I had success. Like I had the pedigree.

"Then I got to college and it just kind of sputtered a little bit. I just didn't keep up with the — I didn't keep up with the progression.

"My pro career has been really good at times and not good at times.

"Last year felt like I kind of found something a little bit, and yeah, man, I'm just — I don't know. It's been great."