Open Championship 2023: Brian Harman’s love of the game pays off with putting performance for the ages

Brian Harman could not make time pass quickly enough for those around him on Sunday afternoon at Royal Liverpool as he wrapped up the 151st Open Championship and the first major of his career by six strokes in a rout over world No. 3 Jon Rahm, Jason Day, Tom Kim and Sepp Straka. When you start the most important round of your life with a five-shot advantage, all anyone who is rooting for you wants to see is the holes tick by as your score remains the same.

But four-plus hours in a heavy rain with nearly every European star in the game chasing with gusto — that moves along slower than one would hope. And for those in Harman’s camp, after the lefty played the first four holes in 1 over and saw his lead start to slip, time must have felt like it stood still on the 5th tee as he blew his drive way out to the left and into a thicket of gorse. 

Just as he had all week, though, Harman calmly played out the rest of the hole. He scored bogey but recovered with birdies at the 6th and 7th to effectively put a tool in the hand of the Claret Jug’s engraver. That increased his lead back to five, which is where it stood when he made the turn. The back nine was one big “just don’t hit a ball out of bounds” march to the biggest title of his career. Harman scored bogey on the 13th but immediately followed with consecutive birdies to post a 1-under round and win by six.

As far as major championship performances go, it was one for the ages. It came from perhaps an unlikely source, too. 

Entering Royal Liverpool, Harman had just two top 10s in 29 major appearances (though one came last year in this tournament at St. Andrews). Did he roll in as a possible contender and winner? Somewhat. He was ranked No. 26 in the Official World Golf Rankings but listed at 175-1 on the oddsboard by Caesars Sportsbook before Thursday’s first round.

Did he show up as someone who seemed like he was going to beat world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler by 13 strokes while cruising to victory over names like Rahm and Rory McIlroy?

There are two ways to look at how Harman won this Open. On Thursday and Friday, he built a lead that made you squint (Brian Harman is up five?! … at the halfway point?!). This allowed him breathing room over the weekend. He still had to (and did) hit golf shots. But he did not have to combine outrageous golf shots with difficult decision making as so many others did. He could afford to play away from risky shots and lean on his putter. Such is the advantage of lapping the field early in the week.

Boy did he lean on that putter. That’s the other way he won this tournament. Without it, perhaps the lead is not as big. Perhaps he feels like he must take on more risky lines. Perhaps he finds more trouble on the weekend.

The numbers are preposterous. He made 14 of 15 putts inside of 10 feet and 6 of 29 putts outside of 20 feet. Both of those statistics are comically good. They both contributed to leading the tournament in strokes gained putting. They both won him a Claret Jug with his 106 putts on the week being the fewest by an Open winner over the last two decades.

It is a year of achievement in a career full of it for Harman, who won for the first time on the PGA Tour since 2017. In addition to this Open victory, he will almost certainly be on his first Ryder Cup team in September when the United States heads to Rome hunting for its first win across the Atlantic since Harman was 6 years old. 

“It would mean the world to me to play on the Ryder Cup team,” said Harman, who played in two Walker Cups as an amateur. “I think I would do very well.”

Don’t let the lack of victories or Ryder Cup appearances fool you. As far as the tier of golfers just outside the stars and superstars of sport goes, Harman is near the top. Here is a list of his accomplishments:

  • $31 million in career earnings (including this Open)
  • 51 top 10 finishes in 340 PGA Tour starts
  • 3 career victories (John Deere, Wells Fargo, Open)
  • 12 straight FedEx Cup Playoffs appearances
  • 235 of 340 cuts made on the PGA Tour

Harman has been a terrific player on the best tour in the world for quite a long time. So, while this blowout major seems a bit random — and perhaps it is random in some ways — sometimes the best four days of one’s golfing life matches up with the four weeks that matter most in the game.

As Rahm pointed out on Saturday after shooting a course-record 63 in the third round, it’s unusual in golf that everything goes how one envisions it. But sometimes, that does indeed happen.

Sometimes, entering a significant event with little burden of expectation is a competitive advantage, especially when up against a field littered with stars everyone has prognosticated to win that tournament. Everyone in the latter camp chased the one man who emerged from the former as the week wore on.

Do not conflate a lack of expectation with a lack of competitiveness. You do not bounce back from early struggles like Harman did on both Saturday and Sunday unless you’re a cutthroat competitor.

There’s a great story about Harman in Shane Ryan’s “Slaying the Tiger” that got passed around this week about how Harman once beat Rickie Fowler so devastatingly at a college event that it made Fowler cry.

Harman won the Claret Jug because he’s a fantastic professional golfer and a dogged competitor in a game sometimes bereft of them, but the part that struck me about his week is that he is a fantastic professional golfer because he loves professional golf.

There are two types of pro athletes. Those who play because they are great and those who are great because they play. Sometimes, as is the case with golfers like McIlroy, Rahm, Scheffler and Jordan Spieth, you get a rare union between the two.

Harman falls into the latter category. He is great because he loves nothing more than playing, practicing and attempting to become even greater.

“Someone once told me one time you should do the things that make you lose track of time, and for me, a lot of times when I’m practicing hitting balls or putting when I’m at home, I lose track of time,” Harman said Saturday. “That’s how I know that I really enjoy it. For me, it’s just an enjoyable profession that I have.” 

There is a beautiful simplicity in this, in getting so lost in your mastery of craft that it rebuffs time itself.

While those corporate mini-billboards displaying two hands and 12 numbers around Open Championship venues must have felt agonizingly slow for his caddie and his team, the Champion Golfer of the Year stayed in his process and put arrow after arrow in the tournament.

In Harman’s little world, the four hours it took to touch off the biggest victory of his career may have felt like no time at all.

Rick Gehman is joined by Kyle Porter, Patrick McDonald and Greg DuCharme to break down Brian Harman’s dominant win at the 151st Open Championship. It’s storylines, a betting recap and the One & Done. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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