2023 British Open: A year after competitive epiphany, Brian Harman in hunt for more
HOYLAKE, England – It was a year ago that Brian Harman – the Brian Harman who lapped the field average on Day 2 at Royal Liverpool by more than eight shots – enjoyed the ultimate competitive epiphany.
Other than a good Sunday at The American Express, Harman’s 2022 had been utterly forgettable when he arrived in the United Kingdom for professional golf’s version of the summer fortnight and through three rounds, including a missed cut at the Scottish Open and an opening 73 at St. Andrews — it was more of the same.
“I came over early for the Scottish [Open] last year, and I think I beat two people at the Scottish Open. Played horrible,” Harman recalled. “Then played bad the first day at St Andrews, was like, golly, I love coming over here but I’m getting my teeth kicked in.”
His record suggests his love/hate relationship with links golf stretches well beyond last year. In six starts at The Open, prior to the ’22 championship, he’d missed four cuts and his best finish was a tie for 19th in ’21. But on that Friday at the Home of Golf something clicked. His second-round 68 was his second-best card ever at the game’s oldest Grand Slam event and weekend rounds of 68-66 left him tied for fourth.
The St. Andrews spark carried Harman through the rest of the year, but success is rarely linear for the 36-year-old two-time PGA Tour winner. It’s been that way since he turned pro back in 2009. It’s been that way since his first start at The Open — on these same wind-whipped fairways in ’14.
Nine years ago he was fresh off his first Tour victory at the John Deere Classic when he arrived at Hoylake, and he stumbled to opening rounds of 72-73 and a “notables” finish, but he knew from that first brush that links golf was his kind of golf.
“I won the John Deere, got in last minute, had the 4:45 [p.m.] tee time on Friday, finished at 10:15, made the cut, loved the golf,” Harman said. “I was really excited, and I think I missed four or five cuts in a row coming over here, and I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t playing well.”
It’s been similar unfulfilled expectations this year following his strong finish to ’22. He was 35th in the world to begin the year and, although he’s reluctant to revisit the topic, he had his sights set on this year’s Ryder Cup and a coveted spot on the U.S. team. But he struggled on the West Coast and through the spring and had more missed cuts (eight) than top-10s (one) heading into the U.S. Open.
“I started the year with really high aspirations. I had played very well all of last year and into the fall. Just missed out on the Presidents Cup I felt like. Then I just hit this odd sort of wall at the beginning of the year and I couldn’t claw my way out of it,” he said.
How he turned his year around is as puzzling as his about-face at last year’s Open Championship. Harman finished runner-up last month at the Travelers Championship and added top-15 finishes at the Rocket Mortgage Classic and last week’s Scottish Open.
But if the only thing that’s consistent about Harman is his inconsistency, his play at Hoylake through 36 holes has been impressively unflappable.
By links golf standards, his play has been clinical. While Harman is never going to dominate the way a McIlroy or a Scheffler or a Rahm might, he’s been uniquely brilliant through two rounds where it matters the most – avoiding trouble and minimizing conservative outcomes. For the week, he doesn’t have a single three-putt, and he’s found just one of Hoylake’s ubiquitous pot bunkers.
Friday’s 65 was particularly skilled with birdies at four of his first five holes followed by a dozen grinding pars – the highlight being a chip-in after finding a bunker off the tee at No. 12. His textbook eagle at the 18thhole might have dazzled the masses, but Harman has forged a career grinding unlikely pars out of the dirt.
“I hit an OK drive, but I knew it was going in that bunker. It’s hard to hold that wind, especially on that hole,” he explained. “It was not a good lie in the bunker, had to play out backwards, and I was kind of just like, all right, would have been extremely happy to walk off that hole with a [bogey].”
When Harman finished his round Friday at Hoylake, he was five shots clear of the field (he finished the day with the same advantage), but it wasn’t comfort nor confidence that he exuded. He’s been here before at the ’17 U.S. Open, where he led by a shot through three rounds, only to watch Brooks Koepka cruise to victory.
Just like at Erin Hills, there’ll be plenty of distractions waiting for Harman this weekend – including a forecast that calls for increasingly Open-like conditions, a leaderboard that featured the likes of Koepka and Jordan Spieth and, of course, Hoylake’s 82 bunkers. The real distractions, however, will come from within.
“I have a very active mind,” Harman said. “I’ve always struggled with trying to predict the future and trying to forecast what’s going to happen. I’ve just tried to get really comfortable just not knowing.”
If he can become comfortable with the unknown, another competitive epiphany, like the one he enjoyed last year at St. Andrews, may await at Hoylake.