HOYLAKE, England – Not every eventual British Open champion can arrive at the 18th tee in the driving rain and gloom on Sunday and feel as if the sun is shining and the game at hand is a casual four-ball with buddies rather than the final hole of a major championship. This is a spot for tension that cripples the body and freezes the brain. When Brian Harman stepped to that tee at Royal Liverpool Golf Club, there might as well have been a welcoming sofa, a television remote control and a cold beer. That’s how comfortable it was. Forget the absolute gale.
A six-shot lead will do that, even to the most jittery soul. Harman, all 5-foot-7 of him, took cover and solace under a massive black umbrella as he walked through miserable conditions toward unbridled joy.
Nothing could hide the brand of golf he played, which was some combination of remarkable and resilient – a closing 70 that was both calm and calculating, that got him to 13-under 271 for the week, and which absolutely dusted a more decorated field with a putter that made – get this – 59 of 60 from within 10 feet. He won by a resounding six shots, the largest margin of victory in this tournament since Louis Oosthuizen beat the field by seven in 2010 at St. Andrews.
That’s a lot for a fellow who hadn’t won in six years.
“I’ve always had self-belief that I could do something like this,” Harman said. “When it takes so much time, it’s hard not to let your mind falter. ‘Maybe I’m not winning again. I’m 36 years old. The game’s getting younger. All these young guys come out, hit it a mile, come out ready to win. When is it going to be my turn again?’”
So what to know about this newly minted champion? He is left-handed, a Georgian by birth and a Georgia Bulldog by schooling. He had previously won two PGA Tour events – one in 2014, the last in ‘17. If he likes anything as much as playing golf, it is hunting – always with a bow, anything from turkey to elk. He could skin a deer when he was 8 years old, and his freezer is packed with all manner of meat that he has harvested. His post-Open celebration: Drive his brand-new tractor around the 40 or so acres on the hunting preserve he owns.
“I got a lot of layers, man,” he said.
Hunting and golf: These would seem to be disparate pursuits. Harman finds commonality.
“The patience and the strategy, for sure,” Harman said.
Let nothing be said about how the hunter became the hunted over the weekend, because that would be impossibly lame. What should be said is this: What Harman did here – twice sleeping on a five-shot lead, only to protect it both times – is harder than coming from behind. There can be a what-the-hell freedom in chasing someone who’s well ahead, because if you take on risk and it doesn’t work out, well, at least you went for it.
Protecting a lead can unsettle the stomach and mess with the brain.
“Sleeping on a lead like that’s really difficult,” Harman allowed.
There was a reality, though, about the entire day. If he could handle that sleep and the circumstances, the field had no chance.
“He had to come back to us, essentially,” said Jason Day, who joined Austria’s Sepp Straka, American Tom Kim and Spain’s Jon Rahm at 7 under.
Harman did not. If there was tension, it was light and brief. The gallery following Harman and playing partner Cameron Young didn’t feel so much like the final round of a major as it did the third round of, say, the John Deere Classic. The throngs, if not cowering from the persistent showers, were elsewhere. The stragglers were there to either harass Harman – “Don’t be nehr-voos, Brian lad!” – or support him: “Go, Dawgs!” But if the jeers outnumbered the verbal pats on the back – and they did – they were counterproductive.
When Harman executed the final shot that mattered, from a greenside bunker at 18 – and in truth, he could have left five in the sand and still won – he finally pumped his fist and slapped the chest of his caddie, Scott Tway. When he did the inevitable and rolled in the final 8-footer for par, he allowed himself the broadest of smiles. The rain pelted down. It mattered not at all.