HOYLAKE — When Brian Harman arrived at Royal Liverpool’s opening hole Sunday, he was still a bundle of nerves. Rory McIlroy was making a move up the leaderboard, Tommy Fleetwood and Jon Rahm were lingering, and a light rain had begun to fall. He’d never been particularly good in the rain, and now he was facing the biggest test of his golfing life. When the official from the R&A announced his name, the majority of the crowd offered up polite applause, but there was also a distinct undercurrent of booing.
Harman stood over the ball and wagged his driver. Two times. Four times. Seven times. Ten times. Finally — mercifully — he pulled the club back and took an aggressive lash at the ball. It had barely left the clubface when a small choir of jeers erupted.
“Get in the bunker, Harman!”
“Rory is gonna catch you, lad!”
Harman smiled. He had heard all of it, and as he walked after his ball, he knew it was exactly what he needed.
“If they wanted me to not play well, they should have been really nice to me,” Harman said.
Harman has always thrived on people’s doubts, which is how you survive as a professional golfer when you’re 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds. It will be harder to doubt him now, considering he put on a performance for the ages, winning the 151st Open Championship by six strokes.
Since 1913, only two players have won the Open by bigger margins — Tiger Woods by eight strokes in 2000, and Louis Oosthuizen in 2010 — which feels like stunning company for Harman to keep, especially considering prior to this week he hadn’t won in six years. But anyone who watched him this week would find it fitting. When Harman walked off the 18th green five hours later, he crossed paths with Sepp Straka, a fellow University of Georgia alum. Straka bear-hugged Harman and looked him up and down.
“Man, that was Tiger Woods stuff out there,” he said.
Harman, to be fair to his doubters, is not someone anyone was predicting would run away from the field this week. If, on Monday, you had drawn up a list of players capable of winning The Open by six shots, it’s hard to conceptualize how many players would have been ahead of Harman. Even as the 28th-ranked player in the world, fifty seems like a reasonable estimate. Though Harman was a stellar amateur growing up in Savannah, Georgia — winning the U.S. Junior Amateur in 2003 — wins have been harder to come by as a professional. He has been consistently good, but infrequently great, winning just twice in his career.
“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.”
Something clicked, however, for Harman a month ago. He was digging around in his barn when he spotted a putting mirror he’d picked up somewhere at a PGA Tour event. He wasn’t sure how long it had been since he’d used it, but he decided to lay it down and tinker with his stroke.
“I was just kind of cutting my putts too much,” Harman said. “I spent a lot of time just feeling the ball, almost hitting like a baby draw with my putter, and it's been really, really good the last month or so.”
At Royal Liverpool, it felt like every time Harman looked at a putt he needed to make, he poured it right in the heart. For the week, he only hit 106 putts, the lowest number for an Open Champion in the last 20 years.
“Unbelievably calm,” said Harman’s caddie Scott Tway, when asked to describe what he saw from his player. There were a couple of moments, early in the day when he had a chance to kind of lose his patience, lose his composure. He responded every time, you know? Never got upset or impatient.”
Harman said during Saturday’s round, when he made a bogey on the 5th hole, his mind briefly started to waver. Doubt began to swirl. As he walked to the 6th tee, a fan leaned in from the rope line and offered up a taunt that he knew Harman could hear.
Harman, you don’t have the stones for this.
“That helped a lot,” Harman said. “It snapped me back into ‘I’m good enough to do this. I’m going to do this. I’m going to go through my process and the next shot is going to be good.’ ”
Harman said he also tried to think about something Georgia Bulldogs football coach Kirby Smart had said: “I’m not going to be hunted. I’m going to hunt.”
That seemed particularly apt after the 5th hole, where Harman made a frustrating bogey after his drive found a gorse bush and he had to take a drop, then couldn’t get up and down from in front of the green. He stood at 11-under, and for a few moments, it felt like there might be content unfolding instead of a coronation. Rahm had just made a birdie to get to 7-under, and Harman could hear the roars from the crowd up ahead.
His tee shot into the 6th hole, a 194-yard par 3, was as piercing as an arrow, a dart with a 5-iron that slashed through the raindrops and landed 13 feet from the flag. Harman’s birdie putt was so pure, he was walking it in by the time it reached the hole, and suddenly the margin was five again. When he followed it up with a birdie on the 7th, rolling in a 23-footer to stretch the lead to six, he’d essentially slammed the door. No one seriously threatened again.
“There were fleeting thoughts [of holding the Claret Jug] throughout the day, but I told myself I wasn't going to let any of that come into my brain,” Harman said. “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.”
Harman casting himself as the hunter instead of the hunted this week felt like a fitting metaphor considering how baffled the non-American press seemed by his reveal that one of his main hobbies, when he isn’t playing golf, is hunting. When Harman shared tales of how he learned to skin a deer when he was 8 years old, and how he’d killed a turkey and a pig on his farm after the Masters, he woke up to headlines in the British tabloids referring to him as “The Butcher of Hoylake.”
“That made me chuckle,” Harman said.
Harman had to explain, multiple times, at various press conferences this week that he wasn’t the boorish American redneck they were painting him out to be. He wasn’t going to drink animal blood out of the Claret Jug — “Guinness,” he clarified — or buy a massive rifle with his winnings. In fact, he didn’t even hunt with guns; he hunts with a bow and arrow, and he certainly didn’t hunt rare animals so he could mount them on his walls. He hunts because he likes to know where his food came from.
The English press still seemed bewildered. From what distance was he most deadly?
“Well, you wouldn’t want to be standing in front of me,” Harman said. “I’m good to about 80 yards, but I don’t take a shot past 40.”
That explains your short game, a reporter quipped.
“Yeah, I’ve got a good pair of hands,” Harman said.
As much as he enjoys hunting, Harman said, he was more interested in getting home to Georgia in the next week and taking a spin on his new tractor, just spending a day away from his phone, cutting grass on his hunting ranch. He might even bring the Claret Jug out with him, he admitted, and just lose himself in the spoils of work.
When asked how much he’d spent on the tractor — an orange, 105-horse-powered Kubota — Harman came close to blushing.
“I haven’t told my wife yet how much I spent on it,” Harman said.
There will be plenty of spoils to come, and perhaps a few life changes, but not as many as you might expect.
“If I know Brian like I think I do, I don't think it's going to change him as a person,” said Rory McIlroy, who finished T-6, his 20th top-10 in a major since 2014. “There might be a few more demands on his time, but apart from that, I think it'll be pretty much the same.”
It will, however, almost certainly earn Harman a spot on the American Ryder Cup team, which, by the way, could certainly use a player who putts well on European soil.
“I think I've got a selection of riches,” said U.S. Captain Zach Johnson. “More positives than anything. The state of American golf is great.”
After Harman rolled in his final putt on 18, he shared a lengthy hug with Tway, then made his way toward scoring to make things official. Tway carried his bag, but Harman wouldn’t hand over his putter. He carried with him as he wove his way through the crowd of R&A officials and marshals and media that engulfed him.
The hunter didn’t want to put down his bow quite yet. It had been so good to him all week, he wanted to cradle it in his arms just a bit longer.
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director of No Laying Up
Email him at email@example.com.