HOYLAKE — What would you think about, trying to fall asleep Saturday night with a five-shot lead in the Open Championship, if you were Brian Harman?
Would you wrestle with the weight of the moment, your anxiety going to battle with your earnest anticipation?
Or would you lean into what was possible, conjuring up blurry images of the Claret Jug and all that it would mean to wrap your arms around it?
Golf is different from other sports in countless ways, but one of its best quirks is the psychological examination it conducts at a major the Saturday night before its final test. You cannot fast forward the hours that exist between the moment the last putt of the third round drops and the moment you can put a tee in the ground again. You have to sit and ponder what awaits, and try not to overthink as you toss and turn in a strange bed.
"Anyone who has a lead has to sleep on it," Tiger Woods said during the 1999 Open Championship when asked if anyone could beat Jean Van de Velde, who went into Sunday leading by five shots. “That's not easy to do. When I won the Masters in '97, it wasn't exactly an easy night's sleep, and I had a nine-shot lead. Anything can happen, and this golf course is very penal. He has to play a solid round again.''
I wanted to know how Harman might wrestle with the conundrum, so I asked him Saturday night what a good night’s sleep might look like, especially when you’re trying to win your first major. He did not hesitate.
“Hopefully about 10 hours worth,” he said.
Harman is not an effusive character. He does not seek out attention, or wax poetic about the importance of golf or his place within the game. But he has been dreaming about winning a major championship since he was a little boy growing up in Savannah, Georgia. He knows he will not be immune to big-picture thoughts when his head hits the pillow Saturday.
“I imagine the thoughts come and go,” Harman said, “so we'll do our best and sleep as much as we can.”
To sleep on a lead at a major is the closest thing we have in golf to a blessing and curse. It can rattle even the most seasoned competitors, as Woods revealed.
At the 2017 Open Championship, Jordan Spieth elected to address the matter head-on, hoping that he’d learned a few things from past experiences at the Masters, including the lead he blew in 2016.
“It’s a different feeling, and it’s one that’s harder to sleep with,” Spieth said when asked about the differences between leading and chasing. “You feel like you almost have to change the way you do things. You almost kind of see the finish line. You control your own destiny. Sometimes that can be a big thing on your mind. It’s a little bit tougher to sleep.”
It’s extremely likely that Harman wins the 2023 Open Championship on Sunday, that he shrugs off whatever nerves the moment brings, regardless of how he sleeps Saturday. But, just as a thought exercise, let’s imagine how it might go another way. What if Harman can’t shut his brain off, and he finds himself staring at the ceiling, waiting for the hours to pass? Sleep deprivation isn’t just a mental obstacle, if your brain doesn’t get enough sleep, it can lead to exhaustion, slowed motor function and issues with coordination.
Ernie Els told Golfweek in 2016 that every golfer, no matter how accomplished they are, feels restless trying to sleep on a lead.
“You need good nerves, and you need good confidence in yourself,” said Els. “I always try to get off to a solid start. If I can hit a solid drive, solid second, solid putt – if it goes in or not, solid stuff – and then I’m fine. Then I’m in the battle and I’m fine. You have to get all those thoughts settled, and if you make a screwup after that, you can come back.
“But you get off to a shaky start, all of a sudden you’re not hitting the ball as well as you did the first three days, and stuff gets into your head. You think about swing and so on. You need a good game plan, good self-confidence, and when you get into it, you should try to make your lead bigger and bigger and bigger.”
In 1995, Brian Henninger found himself tied for the lead after the third round at the Masters with Ben Crenshaw, and he was so giddy about the possibility of winning, he spent Saturday night entertaining friends and family at his rental house. He had trouble winding down as he went to bed. He shot 76 on Sunday and fell to 10th place.
“I really enjoyed Saturday evening,” Henniger told GolfWRX in 2018. “I liked the attention. It was part of my make up, and part of the joy to have people interested in your life, your game, your joy and your passion. I probably didn’t deal with it very good. I brought four people who had supported me, and got to share it with them, and I felt like I’d won the tournament. When I look back on it, if I had prepared a little bit better and gotten quiet, gone to my own room, settled down, distracted myself some way, it would have been better. And then Sunday, you don’t tee off until noon. So you have a lot of time to reminisce about the potential for what this might mean to your career. That’s how I proceed into Sunday, with a lot of nervous energy and to be honest, a little exhausted from the excitement of Saturday night.”
The challenge affects everyone differently, but almost no one feels indifferent about it. Lucas Herbert, who slept on the lead at the Australian Open as a 21-year-old, told Golf Digest in 2017 that he was a wreck.
“I don’t know how I slept last night,” Herbert said. “It’s like trying to drink three cans of Red Bull and then trying to sleep.”
Harman is not Jean Van de Velde, a journeyman who happened to get hot, only to let a life-changing victory slip away with a series of mental gaffes. He is a disciplined veteran who has made the FedExCup playoffs 12 years in a row, never once coming close to losing his Tour card. And he has been in a position like this before, leading the U.S. Open at Erin Hills by a stroke going into the final round. But he shot 72 and finished four strokes behind winner Brooks Koepka.
“I just probably thought about it too much,” Harman said this week. “Just didn’t focus on getting sleep and eating right.”
It is a timeless challenge, trying to rest while knowing your whole life could change the following day. In 1919, according to the legend, Walter Hagen was partying deep into the night instead of resting for a playoff the following day against fellow pro Mike Brady, when a friend implored him to find a bed.
“Mike’s been in bed for hours,” the friend allegedly told Hagen.
“Mike may be in bed,” Hagen supposedly quipped. “But he ain’t sleeping.”
Kevin Van Valkenburg is the Editorial Director for No Laying Up.
Email him at email@example.com.