Harman came close to winning the 2017 U.S. Open, but his triumph on Sunday gave the 36-year-old American golfer his first major title.
Brian Harman knew Saturday evening that sleep might be hard to come by, as much as he knew he needed it. He had been here — the 54-hole leader at a major tournament — six years ago and knew the agonizing cost of a fitful night: a runner-up finish, months and then years of what-ifs, a career not on the margins but not among the elite.
He slept well enough this time. Harman, nestled atop the leaderboard at Royal Liverpool Golf Club since Friday, made a methodical march on Sunday to win the British Open by six strokes, finishing at 13 under par. With a round defined more by get-it-done grit than star-turn splash, Harman held off a band of challengers whose tournament scores wound up swarmed around each other instead of all that close to his.
It was the largest margin of victory at a men’s golf major since the 2020 U.S. Open.
Harman had a five-stroke lead at daybreak, a comfortable gap but not an insurmountable one, not at a tournament that in 1999 saw Paul Lawrie overcome a 10-shot deficit on Sunday to win at Carnoustie. That history aside, the greatest mystery for most of Sunday at a decidedly soggy Royal Liverpool seemed to be not whether Harman would win, but by how much.
Unlike Carnoustie, Royal Liverpool, hosting for the 13th time, has long been kind to the men who climbed its Open leaderboards early. With his victory, Harman became the seventh player to win an Open at the course after having led after two rounds.
Harman, who played collegiate golf at Georgia and turned professional in 2009, has been a reliably talented player on the PGA Tour, mustering 50 top 10 finishes. But despite nearly $29 million in career earnings coming into the final round at Royal Liverpool, where his performance won him $3 million, Harman, 36, was hardly seen as a headliner.
He had two career victories, the John Deere Classic in 2014 and the Wells Fargo Championship in 2017. The next month, in what had been his best showing at a major, he tied for second at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, where he lost to Brooks Koepka by four strokes. Ranked 26th in the world (and never higher than 20th) before his Royal Liverpool victory, he said he did not consider himself underrated.
Asked over the weekend what he considered, before Sunday, his greatest achievement in golf, he leaned back in his seat, crossed his arms and turned his eyes away, a subdued tour stalwart-turned-Open contender thinking through professional golf’s version of a workaday résumé.
“This year will be the 12th straight year that I’ve made the FedEx Cup playoffs,” he replied after about five seconds.
His record in this year’s majors amounts to an enormously mixed one. He missed the cut at the Masters Tournament and the P.G.A. Championship, and tied for 43rd at the U.S. Open. Then came Royal Liverpool, the course where he played his first Open in 2014. Back then, Rory McIlroy won, and Harman tied for 26th.
He proceeded to miss the cut during his next four Opens. Coming into this one, back at the course in northwest England that had also found champions in players like Bobby Jones, Peter Thomson and Tiger Woods, he finished tied for 12th at the Scottish Open.
Harman’s odyssey through this Open began on Thursday, when his 67 put him into fourth place. On Friday, he birdied the first four holes and made eagle on the last for a 65 that gave him sole command of the leaderboard. After a pair of early bogeys, his 69 on Saturday brought him into Sunday with a five-stroke lead over Cameron Young, and a six-shot advantage over Jon Rahm, whose Saturday round was the best at any Open at Royal Liverpool.
The course had been overrun with hazards. Scores of bunkers that, as the 2022 champion Cameron Smith said, were effectively one-shot penalties. A newly-crafted par-3 17th hole that so punished a U.S. Open winner that he suggested it be redesigned again. Sunday brought the bitterest dose of British Open weather: gusting winds, drenching rains, the course feeling at once like a sauna and a shower.
But a five-shot lead at sunrise, visibility of the sun notwithstanding, helps.
“He’s a very tough, experienced character,” Padraig Harrington, a two-time Open winner, said before Harman’s final round began. “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. Nearly every day he goes out on the golf course he’s like playing with a chip on his shoulder like he’s fighting something. I think this is ideal for him.”
The raindrops were still plummeting when Harman stepped up to the tee. With his back to the nearby claret jug — his only left-handed skill is golf — he steadied himself, took one glance after another down the fairway and swung. He would make par on the hole, avoiding a repeat of Saturday’s bogey. But he barely missed a par putt at No. 2, where even a police officer had turned away from the crowd to watch, to shrivel his lead. Young failed to convert a 14-putt birdie putt that would have narrowed it by another stroke.
Seven groups ahead, though, McIlroy was rising. He had begun the day at three under. After five holes on Sunday, he was at six under and suddenly tied for second. Rahm was making pars, and Young, paired with Harman, had already bogeyed the first. By the time Harman’s ball was rolling across the third green, there were five players — McIlroy, Rahm, Young, Tommy Fleetwood and Sepp Straka — tied for second. But Harman’s margin remained as much as it was at the start.
Other potential rivals were nowhere near, not after a tournament whose cut had sapped the leaderboard of much of its prospective star power. Most of those who remained did not pose severe threats. Scottie Scheffler, the world’s top-ranked player, finished the Open at even par. Wyndham Clark, the victor at last month’s U.S. Open, left Hoylake at one over, as did Cameron Smith, last year’s British Open winner. Brooks Koepka, who won the P.G.A. Championship and was the runner-up at the Masters, was eight over.
At the fifth hole, a par-5 that had been the week’s easiest test, Harman’s tee shot flew 249 yards and crashed into bushes, positioning him just more than halfway to the pin.
That pin was where Rahm, the reigning Masters champion, began to make headway, tapping his ball for his first Sunday birdie. Once Harman made it to the green, an eventual 12-foot try for par failed, and when the fifth hole closed for the tournament, Harman’s lead was down to three strokes.
The suspense did not exactly linger.
He nudged it upward again on the par-3 sixth hole, where he holed a birdie putt from about 14 feet, and then again at No. 7, where he made a birdie from 24 feet.
Steadiness returned until Harman made a bogey on the par-3 13th hole that is a favorite of Royal Liverpool members. But the players closest to Harman were fast approaching the 18th green, and running out of time. McIlroy, who was looking for his first major victory since 2014, missed a birdie putt there to finish at six under. Tom Kim soon left the last green, still stuck at seven under, just like Rahm, Straka and Jason Day would be, too.
Elsewhere on the course, Harman himself was edging toward turning the probable into the inevitable. He birdied the 14th hole with a putt that raced about 40 feet downhill into the cup. Another birdie followed on No. 15, moving Harman’s lead to six shots.
The rain kept coming. Harman maintained his march. A parade of defeated players headed toward the clubhouse. The claret jug’s engraver prepared.
It would soon be time to add Harman’s name.