A winner's road
British Open 2023: How the first 7 holes in Brian Harman's final round defined his victory
Brian Harman, with caddie Scott Tway, prepares to tee off from the fourth hole during the final round.
HOYLAKE, England — With a sometimes steady, sometimes pounding rain mucking up the procession at Royal Liverpool on Sunday afternoon, the most you could say about Brian Harman, clad all in black and often obscured by a large black umbrella that emphasized his own smallness, is that he cut a lonely figure against the gray landscape.
This is the weather that both the sadists and masochists were waiting for, and although it's true that Harman came to the right place if he wanted to know whether Rory McIlroy was "coming for you, lad," or if he had questions about whether he was a short man, even the partisan fans were mostly subdued by the downpour. Harman was a man on an island, both literally and figuratively, and with a five-shot lead on his playing partner Cameron Young and more to spare against the distant chase pack, everything came down to him—he could either win the Open Championship or suffer one of the largest 18-hole major collapses in golf history, and likely never get another chance. The image of isolation, as he stood on the first tee, had a metaphorical partner hovering close in the ether.
Under these circumstances, in that opening amphitheater, you had to expect the wobble. He chatted with his caddie beneath the umbrella, took a sip of water, and perhaps heard the cries of "C'mon Rory!" from the umbrella'd gallery above, or the shout of "U-S-A" coming from the man in the Jaguars jersey and Stars-and-Stripes pants just down the rope line.
"This is game No. 38. Now on the tee from the USA, Brian Harman."
Waggle, waggle, waggle ... and a competent first shot 272 yards down the fairway, then 213 yards more to the safety of the green.
"Only a bit of rain, lads!" shouted a fan as they walked to the putting surface.
"Rory's gonna get you!"
The seagulls made their opinion known over the turreted brick homes on Stanley Road, and Harman made par.
"Can I get an amen!" came a shout after Harman's drive on two, and he would have loved some heavenly intervention when his second shot missed the green, leading to his first bogey. His comfortable 12 under became a slightly less comfortable 11 under, and only the status quo of the chasers (aside from a prototypical and clearly illegitimate run from McIlroy) seemed to provide any solace.
By the third hole, it would have been easy to become convinced that in this place, the sun had never existed, and we had lived our entire week, and lives, under the impenetrable slate gray, with only the fluctuations of the rain for variety. Harman's drive on the par 4 flew right, dangerously close to—but not quite—out of bounds. Harman's approach on the par 4 flew right, dangerously close to—but not quite—out of bounds.
"Don't choke, lad!"
He didn't. With one leg planted uphill in the sorrel and Yorkshire fog, he stubbed out a competent chip and converted the seven-footer. He barely reacted, and the crowd followed suit. The rain had a way of diminishing the early tension, but it was palpable anyway now; if this wasn't a wobble, it was at least the harbinger.
The cars and busses roared in the hidden background by the fourth tee, and Harman bought himself another hole with fairway, green, two-putt. Still, no one was making a move. There was, as yet no disaster.
Brian Harman's putter was a key club in his bag for the week.
The drivers emerged on five, and the wobble manifested—a tangible rain demon, damp and cranky. Harman's drive flew instantly and obviously left, and just moments after it was found in an unplayable gorse shrub, the distant roar and the subsequent news came like lightning and thunder—Jon Rahm, very clearly the most dangerous man on the course, had made birdie ahead and gone to seven under.
Harman was forced to take an unplayable, navigate backward on his line, and though it seemed like a 3-wood provided temporary salvation, traveling 244 yards and leaving him a 24-foot up-and-down ("MegaCorp!" came an ecstatic cry from a fan celebrating his mysterious hat sponsor), his short game let him down for one of the first times all week. A rough chip, a missed 11-footer, and the hole that had saved him a day earlier now knifed him in the back: a bogey, and a three-shot lead over the charging Spaniard.
Enter the danger zone. Harman spent the week speaking about his past inability to exist in the moment, to avoid the disaster of looking ahead, imagining fates both terrible and jubilant. Saturday, he'd been able to narrow his field of vision, absorb two opening bogeys, and prove that there was focus to be tapped. But with another night behind him, Sunday must have loomed as a very different beast. Everything depended on what came next.
And though it's hard to celebrate a runaway final round, and though Harman's journeyman past means he claims no cult of supporters, American or otherwise, and though rain suppresses drama and emotion, what came next was still spectacular. Or as spectacular as a simple 195-yard tee shot and the 13-foot putt that followed can be. As he studied the birdie attempt, Harman studiously ignored the noise behind him.
"That's a kid's putter!"
"Let's go, little man!"
Money. If every par was a stay of execution, a running of the clock, every birdie was sustenance for him, morale-killing for the field. Again, he barely reacted. By now, he had blended into the landscape and become indistinguishable, a figure committed to existing within the atmosphere as long as necessary.
And then 7, the end of this story, and in some ways the end of the greater story. Two hundred sixty-nine yards off the tee, 188 more on the approach, and 23 feet left. As he studied the birdie attempt, his ball at rest on the dark green edge of a fairy ring, he studiously ignored the noise behind him.
A lonely melody of support for the lonely man in black: "Sea Island loves you!"
A sea of wet grass, fescue, gorse, dandelions, purple harebells, fireweed, toadflax. The oppressive gray above, the rain now a full-on assault.
And you were left wondering, before his putt, if that rain itself was Harman-esque—varying, at times on the verge of a disappearance that would make many people happy, but in the end constant, inevitable.
He struck the putt, and 23 feet later it disappeared from the green turf. The wobble had passed, the ship was righted.
He had been at it for a century, an eternity, and almost two hours. Once more, he had the field at his mercy, and this time it was for good.
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