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Brian Harman may be the toughest match play golfer we've never seen, ousts Rory McIlroy

March 23, 2018
World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play - Round Three

Richard Heathcote

AUSTIN — Yesterday, when reporters told Rory McIlroy that Friday's much-anticipated Spieth-Reed was scheduled for 1:30, he was pleased. "Hopefully I get done early so I can watch it," he said.

This morning, he got his wish, but not remotely in the way he'd hoped. Brian Harman, the 5-foot-7 lefty playing in his first WGC-Dell Match Play, gave him no room for error, and on the front nine, Rory made plenty of them. Harman went 3 up at the turn, and though McIlroy pressured him on the back nine, Harman wouldn't budge—he played steady, forcing his opponent to take big risks and slowly suffocated him to the tune of a 5-and-3 win. In the process, he became the first player to advance to the weekend elimination stage.

Harman's career has followed an interesting and unusual trajectory. As a junior golfer, he was considered one of the best not just in the country, but the world. He won the American Junior Golf Association player of the year award twice, in 2003 and 2004, won the U.S. Junior Amateur in 2003, and only lost one match in two Walker Cups. There are plenty of junior prodigies who have fallen off the face off the golf map, either because they peaked too early, burned out or simply didn't have the consistency to succeed on the PGA Tour. And, of course, there are child stars such as Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods and McIlroy who lived up to their early promise and more.

Harman followed neither of these paths. He never disappeared, but he also never became a star. Unusually, he made the transition from prodigy to journeyman, and at age 31, he seems to have settled into a successful but not spectacular career.

But there's a caveat here, and it's potentially a big one: Before this weekend, Harman had never played a single match-play event as a pro. No WGC events, no Ryder Cup, no Presidents Cup. That's pretty remarkable for a guy who found great success in the format as a junior. At 2-0-1 over the first three days at Austin, there's a decent, early argument that we may be seeing a hidden match-play dynamo.

On the 13th hole at Austin Country Club, 3 up on McIlroy, Harman watched his opponent attempt to drive the green. It was a necessary move, and part of what makes the reachable par 4 such an interesting hole. Inevitably, a player facing a deficit must at least consider taking out the driver, and if the deficit is big, the opportunity is even more compelling. But Rory pushed his drive far right, and Harman had the luxury of laying up and sticking his approach shot three feet from the hole. After the match, Harman pointed out that although he was routinely out-driven by his opponent, occasionally in match play it can be advantage to hit the second shot first, in order to put pressure on your opponent's shot. The 13th followed that formula—McIlroy couldn't go up and down for birdie, and when Harman made the semi-tricky downhill putt, he was 4-up with five to play.

A hole later, he cut a solitary figure as he walked along the water ahead of McIlroy. Harman is one of those athletes who is often described as "gritty," or a "fighter," which owes itself in some part to his height. But there's a lonely quality to him that's often missed—he seems to have a wall around him, to exist at a distance. With his hands in his pockets, framed in pink shirt, gray pants, and a camo-pattern belt against the overcast sky, that reclusive aura was never more apparent. But there was also a purpose to his stride—he couldn't be stopped.

His approach on that hole sailed, but a chip to gimme distance put the pressure back on McIlroy, who couldn't make his birdie putt. That put Harman dormie, and led to one of the strange situations that can sometimes happen on Fridays at the WGC—Rory had not lost the match, but he had been eliminated from contention, and Harman had clinched his group. One hole later, after driving over the primordial green of the pond by the tee, and sticking another beautiful approach, he also clinched the match.

He endured the assembly line of tv and radio interviews, and the one interesting thing he said was that he had Rory "circled" on his calendar before the week began, and that it had been tough to concentrate in his first two matches because Friday loomed so large.

Saturday will loom larger—he faces another big hitter in Bubba Watson in the round of 16. Both are Georgia alums, and though there's no sign of direct hostility between the two, Harman once laughed when asked if Watson was close to the other Georgia alums like Harman himself. "He's not, man," he said. "He's just not."

Tomorrow, he'll have his chance to add new evidence to a developing theory—that he's a tough, scary match play opponent who was just waiting for his chance to take the format by storm.