By Doug Ferguson
Brian Harman stood in the tunnel and looked out to the 18th green at Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, England, with his eyes on that shiny claret jug, waiting for his name to be called with the century-old introduction as “champion golfer of the year." He always imagined this was possible.
Maybe not in a steady rain, his least favorite weather, on Sunday at the British Open. Perhaps not before a British Open crowd that seemed to want anyone but Harman to win, including one fan who he heard say over the weekend, "Harman, you don't have the stones for this.”
All that was sweet music to the little lefty with Georgia grit and something to prove, to himself and anyone watching.
And did he ever.
Harman delivered a performance so remarkable he hit into only three bunkers all week, led the last 51 holes of the British Open and never gave anyone a chance. He closed with a 1-under 70 and won by six shots.
“I've always had a self-belief that I could do something like this,” Harman said. "It’s just when it takes so much time, it’s hard not to let your mind falter, like maybe I’m not winning again. I’m 36 years old. Game is getting younger. All these young guys coming out, hit it a mile and they’re all ready to win. Like, when is it going to be my turn again?
“To come out and put a performance like that together ... I don’t know why this week, but I’m very thankful that it was this week.”
Harman turned back every challenge in the British Open, from big names to bad weather, and took his place among major champions Sunday with a victory that never was in doubt.
When his second bogey in the opening five holes reduced his lead to three, Harman answered with two straight birdies. When he dropped another shot on the 13th hole and his lead was down to four shots, Harman made two more birdies, the first one from 40 feet on No. 14.
By then, everyone else was playing for second.
“He won by six, so there’s nothing really any of us could have done,” said Masters champion Jon Rahm, one of four players who had to settle for the silver medal.
Harman, the great outdoorsman, made winning look as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
He is the oldest first-time major winner since Sergio Garcia was 37 when he won the Masters in 2017. Garcia wasn't a surprise. Not many would have imagined Harman's name engraved on the claret jug at the start of the week.
Harman had gone 167 tournaments over six years since his last win, the 2017 Wells Fargo Championship. This is only his third title in his 12 years on the PGA Tour.
“Someone mentioned that I’ve had more top 10s than anyone since 2017, so that’s a lot of times where you get done, you’re like, ‘Damn it, man, I had that one.’ It just didn’t happen for whatever reason,” he said.
Now he has the claret jug, and “I'm not going to let it out of my sight for the time being.”
“I’m going to have a couple of pints out of this here trophy, I believe,” Harman said.
Rahm birdied his last hole for a 70 to make it a four-way tie for second place with Tom Kim (67), Sepp Straka (69) and Jason Day (69).
That turned out to be the B-flight.
Harman took the lead on Friday morning with the second of four straight birdies early in the second round. He never trailed over the final 51 holes, leading by five shots after the second round and five shots after the third round.
He started the round in the rain with a smattering of boos from the grandstand, fans either wanting a big star or perhaps not paying attention to the masterclass performance Harman had delivered. Playing with Tommy Fleetwood of England on Saturday, Harman said he heard a few comments he described as unrepeatable.
He never wavered in rain or sunshine or wind over the final two days. And when it was over, Harman walked up toward the 18th green to a standing ovation, and tapped his hand to his heart to acknowledge the fans as he walked off the green.
He never contemplated winning until he blasted out of the pot bunker right of the green and slapped the chest of his caddie, Scott Tway, the brother of 1986 PGA champion Bob Tway.
Padraig Harrington was among those who envisioned how Sunday would unfold.
“Sometimes we see somebody leading a tournament and you kind of go, ‘Oh, is he going to hang on?’ I don’t think that’s the case with Brian Harman,” Harrington said. “Nearly every day he goes out on the golf course he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder like he’s fighting something. I think this is ideal for him.”
There was one anxious moment early on Sunday in a steady rain. Harman hit his drive into a gorse bush left of the fairway on the par-5 fifth hole and had to take a penalty drop. It led to his second bogey of the round.
Rahm, playing in the group ahead, looked to get one of those breaks that fall to major winners. His drive had landed between bushes, allowing for a shot just short of the green and a birdie.
The lead was down to three shots. The rain wasn't stopping. The rest of the links, along with the pressure that comes with Sunday at a major, was still ahead of him.
Harman went birdie-birdie, and the lead was back to five. He didn't make another mistake until missing the 13th green and taking bogey. And then he went birdie-birdie again.
The year of majors ended in more disappointment for Rory McIlroy, who had won the Scottish Open last week and was the last Open champion at Royal Liverpool in 2014. He was never really a factor, although he certainly teased the large galleries that followed him.
Sunday was no exception. McIlroy started nine shots behind and ran off three straight birdies, starting with a 50-foot putt on No. 3. He was within five shots and still on the front nine. And then he stalled, not making another birdie until Harman was well on his way.
McIlroy was one shot better each round — 71-70-69-68 — to tie for sixth with Emiliano Grillo (68). That wasn't nearly enough to match a performance like Harman delivered.
“I'm optimistic about the future and just got to keep plugging away," said McIlroy, who has gone 34 majors since winning his last one in 2014.
Harman now has a five-year exemption in all the majors and joins the list of Open champions at Hoylake that include McIlroy and Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.
He also can think about a return to Europe in September for the Ryder Cup in Rome. The victory, worth $3 million, moves him comfortably to No. 3 in the standings. The top six a month from now automatically qualify.
Harman never has played in a Ryder Cup. He moves to No. 10 in the world. This is new territory. Over four days at Royal Liverpool, he certainly looked like he belonged.