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The Jekyll and Hyde Nature of Brian Harman Winning an Open Championship at Hoylake

When you consider the 151st Open Championship through the prism of history, the contrasts are staggering. While some lament that Brian Harman, an otherwise uninspiring journeyman player, just won the 2023 Open Championship with plodding methodical golf, others celebrate his victory as a win for the little guy.

We all love a feel-good story of unsung heroes finally triumphant, but will Brian Harman’s victory, contested over the somber, dreary, rainy Royal Liverpool Golf Club, be remembered for more than just that?  A nice guy who won that one time in the rain at…where was it again?

Could be.

Without question, Sunday at Hoylake will go down as one of the most tepid final rounds in major championship history; there was no drama whatsoever. Harman took the lead early Friday morning with a four consecutive birdie barrage at holes 2, 3, 4, and 5, and then watched as weather rolled in and no one in the afternoon wave could keep pace.

He shot 64 that day. The field average that round was 72.5.

Harman slept on a five-shot lead on Saturday, and then methodically held strong as only players from further back in the field made up ground, but none of his immediate pursuers. Where he started the day 5-8 shots in front of Tommy Fleetwood, Sepp Straka, Jason Day, Min Woo Lee, Shubhankar Sharma, Emiliano Grillo, Adrián Otaegui, and Jordan Spieth, when his head hit the pillow on Saturday night, Harman’s closest threats were Cameron Young, Jon Rahm, Jason Day, Tommy Fleetwood, Viktor Hovland, Antoine Rozner, Sepp Straka, and Alex Fitzpatrick, all between the same 5-8 shots behind, but mostly newcomers, mixed with a few stragglers who didn’t percolate off of the first page of the leaderboard.

His final round was more a victory lap in the rain, a coronation rather than a crucible. Like Saturday, he had two early bogeys, but then bounced back immediately. A sloppy bogey at the short par-5 fifth hole dwindled his lead to three over Rahm, but Harman then birdied the next two holes to regain his five-shot margin.

Neither the field nor Royal Liverpool laid a glove no him the rest of the day. He cruised to a four-shot win.

But what was memorable about Harman’s play this week? He doesn’t hit gargantuan drives like Koepka or Woods. He averaged just 283 yards off the tee, paltry by modern standards. He rarely lasers irons to kick-in distance like Woods or Ben Hogan or Rory McIlroy. His wedges aren’t Harry Potter-esque magic wands like Phil Mickelson’s are. And although he finished first in putting for the week, that was on the back of a 58 for 59 performance within 10 feet, there weren’t any snakes across the green or twisting double breakers a la Tom Watson or jack Nicklaus. Instead, we got a steady diet of good lags and testy knee-knockers.

No one in Hollywood will want to make a movie of this one, that’s for sure, unless it’s a golf sequel to The Hobbit, and the British press, clearly pulling for Fleetwood or Rory, tried to get in Harman’s head with short jokes in tabloid headlines. Yes, Harman clearly played the most consistent golf this week at Hoylake, and his nearly flawless putting put him over the top by a wide margin. But Hobbit Golf isn’t sexy. Just ask 2004 Open Championship winner Todd Hamilton. He bunted his way around Royal Troon in 2004, dinking and doinking his way around with punch shots nursing a lead, finally winning in a playoff.

Royal Troon won that Open. Hamilton just happened to take home the trophy.

Harman stands in stark contrast to the previous winners at Hoylake as well. Royal Liverpool tends to crown Hall of Fame golfers, if not immortals. Walter Hagen, J.H. Taylor, Bobby Jones, Peter Thomson, Tiger, Woods, Rory McIlroy…and now Brian Harman.

While some pundits are comparing Harman’s walkaway win at Hoylake to Martin Kaymer’s eight stroke victory at Pinehurst in 2014, I believe this falls far short of Kaymer’s record shattering performance. First, Kaymer had already won a major, the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits. Second, Kaymer won wire-to-wire, no ties. Finally, Kaymer is a frequent winner on the PGA and European Tours. Harman was, until this weekend, a nice little journeyman player who won a few tournaments here and there after a nice junior and collegiate career.

In most ways, Harman reminds me of Lucas Glover, the off-brand winner of the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage. Like Harman did at Hoylake, Glover held off the greatest names of the age – Duval, Mickelson, Woods, and Singh. So did Webb Simpson in 2012 at Olympic Club when he prevailed over Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell. And We had a similar issue with Wyndham Clark winning the U.S. Open last month – a mudder of a golfer suddenly built am early lead on Friday, then managed to nurse it to the house on Sunday over a much more decorated field chasing him.

Let’s be clear:  Harman is not an accidental champion. Like Louis Oosthuizen in 2010 or like Kayner, he won in dominant fashion; he didn’t just happen to be ahead by one when the 72nd hole was finished, like say Corey Pavin  at Shinnecock in 1986 or find himself in an unlikely playoff like or Retief Goosen at Southern Hills in 2001. Harman cruised to victory comfortably, a little hiccup or two aside.

Still, put up your hand if you had him pre-tournament to win. I know one guy, and he played a whole bunch of other tickets too. Lots o’ hedging going on there…

Nevertheless, Harman, like Wyndham Clark, held on and held on with fans and media rooting against him. Clark had PGA Tour media personnel calling out that he was finished every time he missed a fairway starting on Saturday and continuing through until mid-back nine on Championship Sunday when it was clear Clark was a lock. Similarly, fans hurled epithets at Harman rather than merely cheering for local favorites Rpry McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood.

That has to make the claret in the Jug taste far sweeter.

So, call him a plodder or mudder, compare him to fluke winners across golf history, and make all the predictions you want that he won’t “validate” this win with a second major. Brian Harman’s name is etched on the trophy with the immortals, and his picture in victory will adorn clubhouse walls from Dornoch to Kerry and from Sandwich and from Sandwich back to Liverpool. If a plodder hoists the Claret Jug, then “Say hey!” to the plodders of the world. And take heart, little guys can win the big tournaments, so there’s hope for all the Hobbits of the world.