Unlikely winner? Not if you knew Brian Harman all along

  • Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior WriterJul 23, 2023, 05:11 PM ET

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    • Senior college football writer
    • Author of seven books on college football
    • Graduate of the University of Georgia

HOYLAKE, England — More than a dozen years later, Georgia men’s golf coach Chris Haack still remembers what Brian Harman said to him as he walked off the 15th hole at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio.

Harman, a senior and the Bulldogs’ top player, was battling Rickie Fowler in a back-and-forth match that would decide which team would advance to the semifinals of the 2009 NCAA championship.

On the 15th hole, Fowler two-putted for par. Harman had to make an 8-footer to remain 1 down in the match. He drained the putt. When Harman looked up, he noticed that Fowler and Oklahoma State Cowboys coach Mike McGraw were already walking toward the 16th tee box, leaving him to walk back across the green to retrieve the pin.

“That just fries me,” Harman told Haack as he walked off the 15th green. “I’m about to whip his ass.”

Both players made birdie putts outside 15 feet on the 16th hole. On the 17th, Harman made another birdie, while Fowler’s try lipped out. On the 18th, Fowler hit his approach shot to about 30 feet. Harman’s ball landed 8 feet from the hole. Fowler missed his birdie attempt, and Harman sank his for a third straight birdie to win the match.

“That was one of the best matches I’ve ever seen,” said PGA Tour player Harris English, one of Harman’s teammates at Georgia. “I wish it had been on TV or someone had a video of it. He found something to piss him off, and a pissed-off Brian Harman is nobody you want to mess with on the golf course.”

While Harman might have stunned the golf world by capturing the 151st Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club on Sunday, Haack, English and others who have known him since his junior golf and college days had been waiting for him to win something big. They probably didn’t think he would finish 13 under and win the Claret Jug by 6 strokes, which tied for the second-largest margin of victory by an American golfer in the storied tournament’s history. Tiger Woods won by 8 at St. Andrews in Scotland in 2000.

“He had such a great pedigree,” Haack said of Harman. “He was always a great player and very competitive. But I think the one thing that has eluded him was just getting to the winner’s circle probably a lot more times than he would have liked. He’s certainly put himself in contention with all those top-10s.

“This is more of what I thought I might see at some point. I think as he has gotten older and wiser, he is probably playing smarter and seemed to have a good game plan all week.”

An English fan delivered Harman the motivation he needed during Saturday’s third round. After Harman made bogeys on two of the first four holes, the man told him, “Harman, you don’t have the stones for this.”

“That helped,” Harman said.

In Sunday’s final round, he had bogeys on two of the first five holes and his lead was reduced to 3. But then he made back-to-back birdies and added two more on the back nine.

“He’s always had a chip on his shoulder, absolutely,” PGA Tour player J.T. Poston said. “That’s what makes him good. He just goes out there and he’s like, ‘I don’t care how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to beat you.'”

Harman, 36, is only the third left-handed player to win The Open, joining Bob Charles (1963) and Phil Mickelson (2013).

Growing up on a golf course in Savannah, Georgia, Harman dreamed of winning not The Open but a green jacket at Augusta National Golf Club.

“You grow up in Georgia, it’s all the Masters,” Harman said. “It’s proximity. But I came here and I was like, ‘Wow, man, this is unbelievable.’ The fans are incredible. Everyone understands golf over here. It was just a delight to play.”

Harman’s father was a dentist, his mother a chemist. Neither was a golfer. After Harman started playing the game with other kids, he persuaded his mother to take him to see legendary instructor Jack Lumpkin, the director of instruction at Sea Island Resort on the Georgia coast. Lumpkin, who had learned under Claude Harmon (Butch’s father), liked what he saw from the 11-year-old. He told him to come back every six months.

The first time Sea Island resident Davis Love III saw Harman play, he was throwing clubs in a junior tournament. PGA Tour pro Brendon Todd, his teammate at Georgia, remembers competing against him in a junior tournament in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Todd was 17 and two years older than Harman.

“He was the most talented, angry kid I’d seen that point,” Todd said. “I remember walking off the golf course being like, ‘If that guy can just calm down a little bit, he’s going to be out-of-this-world good. He was just a stud.”

Harman did, and he was. He won the 2003 U.S. Junior Amateur, becoming only the third left-handed winner of a United States Golf Association event in its 108-year history. He was ranked the No. 1 amateur in the world. In 2005, he was the youngest player to ever compete on an American Walker Cup team. He was foursome partners with Anthony Kim and had a 2-0-1 record.

Poston said PGA Tour players have talked about how Harman was one of the few junior players who could have turned pro and had success without playing in college.

“He was that sharp and developed,” Poston said.

When Harman joined the University of Georgia’s golf team in 2007, then-senior Kevin Kisner couldn’t believe how talented the freshman was. He recalls Harman hitting at least one flag during nearly every practice round they played together.

“It was incredible how good he could hit it when he was 17,” Kisner said. “I was like, ‘This guy is going to kill everybody.’ It didn’t even faze him how good he was hitting it. I joke to him all the time that he was better when he was 17 than he is now.”

Harman probably never reached his full potential at Georgia, winning two tournaments in his four seasons with the Bulldogs.

“I had success,” Harman said. “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 progression.”

Harman has been a good but not great PGA Tour player. Before this week, he had won twice on the tour and earned about $30 million. He tied for second at the 2017 U.S. Open and for sixth at last year’s Open Championship at St. Andrews in Scotland. Since the start of the 2017-18 season, he had 29 top-10 finishes on tour, the most of any player without a victory.

“My pro career has been really good at times and not good at times,” he said.

In addition to Lumpkin, Harman found two other mentors at Sea Island: Love, a 21-time winner on the PGA Tour, including the 1997 PGA Championship, and two-time major winner Zach Johnson. They’re among several players who live and train on the island.

They worked to help Harman control his emotions on the course.

“He was always passionate and had a temper,” Love said. “But you’re not going to be Rory McIlroy or Jon Rahm or Brian Harman unless you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder and confidence and cockiness, and he’s certainly got that. He always felt like others got more attention than him, whether he was one of the Georgia Bulldogs or the Sea Island guys, but he’s definitely been one of the best talents we’ve had around here.”

Johnson, the Ryder Cup captain, saw a lot of his game in Harman’s.

“We’re both just gritty,” Johnson said. “We both don’t care how far the ball goes off the tee. We rely on our strengths. We don’t try to manipulate our games just because of what we witness with other players or whatever outside factors might surface.

“His game is really simple: The ball goes straight, might fall right, and he’s a really, really good putter. I think he’s a great reader of the greens.”

A couple of years ago, Harman started working with Justin Parsons, an instructor from Northern Ireland, who had coached English, Patton Kizzire, Louis Oosthuizen and others. Harman also continued working with Lumpkin, who passed away in February 2022. Harman named his son, Jack, after Lumpkin.

At 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, Harman is one of the smallest players on tour. He doesn’t hit his tee shots as far as players like McIlroy and Cameron Young, but he isn’t exceptionally short, either. Parsons knew Harman had an exceptional short game and was one of the best putters on tour. Parsons convinced him to quit worrying about distance to become a better iron player.

“We’ve worked really hard for a couple of years to get him more on top of the golf ball to make him a better iron player,” Parsons said. “He’s always been a really good driver of the ball. But his iron play hasn’t been quite up to the standard to where he was going to be able to consistently do what he was wanting to do.”

All aspects of Harman’s game were on display at Royal Liverpool. He led the field in driving accuracy, hitting 75% of fairways, and averaged 285.4 yards off the tee. He hit 66.7% of greens and needed only 1.5 putts per hole, which was second among players who made the cut. Six years and 77 days since his last victory at the 2017 Wells Fargo Championship, it all came together again at The Open.

“I’ve always had a self-belief that I could do something like this,” Harman said. “It’s just when it takes so much time it’s hard not to let your mind falter, like maybe I’m not winning again. I’m 36 years old. Game is getting younger. All these young guys coming out, hit it a mile, and they’re all ready to win. Like when is it going to be my turn again?

“It’s been hard to deal with. I think someone mentioned that I’ve had more top-10s than anyone since 2017, so that’s a lot of times where you get done, you’re like, ‘Damn it, man, I had that one.’ It just didn’t happen for whatever reason. I don’t know why this week, but I’m very thankful that it was this week.”

Harman said he planned on drinking Guinness out of the Claret Jug on Sunday night. He’ll fly to Syracuse, New York, on Monday to see his wife, Kelly, and their three kids, who are spending time with his in-laws. At some point, Harman, an avid outdoorsman, will return to his farm in south Georgia. There’s a new 105-horsepower tractor waiting for him. When a reporter asked how much he’d spent on the tractor, he declined to say.

“I haven’t told my wife how much I spent on it yet,” Harman joked.

Fortunately for Harman, he collected a $3 million winner’s check. He moved to No. 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking, his highest ranking ever, and is expected to be third in the U.S. Ryder Cup team points standings. The top six players in the standings after the BMW Championship on Aug. 20 will automatically qualify for the American team that will compete against Europe at Marco Simone Golf & Country Club outside Rome on Sept. 29-Oct. 1. Harman will more than likely be on the team.

“I think he’ll be phenomenal,” Todd said. “He will be phenomenal because his form is great and if he’s putting like this, he’s going to pound somebody.”

After waiting for his former college teammate to win again, Todd believes this might catapult Harman’s career.

“Him with only two wins was shocking to me, but it’s hard,” Todd said. “And who knows? Maybe this will be the lid that comes off and he wins 10 more.”