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British Open 2023: To really know Brian Harman, you need to know about his legendary win in college over Rickie Fowler

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Then Georgia senior Brian Harman hits a shot in his match against Oklahoma State's Rickie Fowler at the 2009 NCAA Championship. (Photo courtesy of Georgia athletics)

Two victories in 12 years on the PGA Tour suggests that Brian Harman is a solid tour professional, but doesn't scream that he’s one who possesses a closing kick that could lead to a major championship victory. He worked to dispel that notion on Saturday at Royal Liverpool by taking a five-shot lead into the third round of the Open Championship and making sure nobody got any closer by shooting a two-under 69. He sits 12 under for the tournament, five ahead of Cameron Young with the biggest round of his career in front of him.

But those who know the 36-year-old from Savannah, Ga., know that in his amateur days, there was more than enough “bulldog” in him than his diminutive 5-foot-7 frame might suggest. His win at the 2003 U.S. Junior Amateur and his two AJGA national player of the year honors hint at being a steely competitor, as does his 4-1-2 record while playing on two winning U.S. Walker Cup teams.

The most legendary story about Harman, however, involves his performance at the 2009 NCAA Championship while competing for Georgia. It was Harman’s senior year, and the first year that the team title was being decided via match play. The Bulldogs were the No. 1 seed of the eight schools that advanced to the match-play bracket at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, but they had to face the team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation, Oklahoma State, in the quarterfinal round. And Harman, as Georgia's top-ranked player, was matched against OSU’s No. 1, Rickie Fowler, in what played out as the deciding match between the two teams.

Impressively, the match lived up to the hype, Fowler taking a 1-up lead through 14 holes as the crowds from the other matches descended on the two future PGA Tour winners. On the 15th, Fowler two-putted for par, forcing Harman to make an eight-footer to halve the hole and stay just 1 down. He drained the putt but noticed that Fowler and his coach, Mike McGraw, had already left the green for the 16th tee, forcing Harman to put the flagstick back in. This minor breach of etiquette proved a major sore point for Harman.

“He jammed the flag in the hole,” said Georgia coach Chris Haack, “and said, ‘This really pisses me off.’”

Shane Ryan, who chronicled the rise of young golfers in the Tiger Woods era in his book Chasing the Tiger, touched on the match in his book and characterized Harman’s thoughts in a little less family-friendly manner.

“You mother***er,” Harman thought to himself. “I’m about to kick that guy in the teeth.”

On the 16th hole, Fowler made a birdie from outside 15 feet, but so did Harman. Then on the 17th, Harman made another birdie while Fowler’s birdie try lipped out.

All square on the 18th hole, Harman found the fairway off the tee. Fowler was first to hit his approach on the par-4 home hole, leaving himself a 30-footer for birdie. Harman proceeded to go flag-hunting, leaving his ball four feet from the hole. Fowler missed, Harman didn’t, and proceeded to end the season for Fowler and Oklahoma State.

“Probably the most fun I’ve had in college golf, that head-to-head aspect, coming down the stretch, having your whole team out there.”

And that was from the losing player, Fowler’s voice emotionally cracking after the loss … unaware in the moment the motivation he supplied for Harman on the 15th hole.

“Those last three holes, I don’t know, something just got into me,” Harman said. “I said, 'I’m ready to win this match now.'”

Harman turned pro that summer, and in 2011 he earned his PGA Tour card, one he has held on to ever since. His pro career might not have the victories that came as an amateur, his two tour wins coming at the 2014 John Deere Classic and 2017 Wells Fargo Championship, but he’s made $28.9 million. And if you don't think he has the moxey to win on Sunday, just ask Rickie Fowler.

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Is it the British Open or the Open Championship? The name of the final men’s major of the golf season is a subject of continued discussion. The event’s official name, as explained in this op-ed by former R&A chairman Ian Pattinson, is the Open Championship. But since many United States golf fans continue to refer to it as the British Open, and search news around the event accordingly, Golf Digest continues to utilize both names in its coverage.

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