The crowds always tell the story, because they are a mirror into what they are seeing, and what they saw was a man doing his best to make them miserable. You see, they had come for Tommy Lad, they had come for Rory, they had come for Rahm. They had come for anyone to do anything, save apparently for the only player doing just that. Their hopes met the same fate, each slayed and fashioned into a trophy by the one they were cheering against, revealing a truth those at Royal Liverpool didn’t want to admit but had to acknowledge: this major was Brian Harman’s, and golf was due for a major dud.
Dud, that’s what we had at the 151st Open, and we’re not referring to its champion. You don’t do what Harman did, at a championship like this, at a place like this, and call him a dud. He found just two bunkers all week until the 72nd hole at a course that has more craters than the moon. He made six bogeys all week and four of those times bounced back with a birdie. At 13-under, he was six shots ahead of his nearest competitors; only Tiger Woods has won by a wider margin this century, and anytime you’re mentioned with Tiger Woods you know you’re doing something special. At one point Harman was 54-from-54 when putting from inside 10 feet, ultimately finishing 59-from-60, and had the fewest total putts in an Open since they started keeping stats of such a ridiculous thing.
And boy, how he did it. Harman amassed a big lead in big-time wind on Friday, fought off the pressures that come with such a lead on Saturday and played under a tap for most of Sunday. His final 36 holes were contested in front of a partisan and occasionally hostile crowd; on the third hole in the final round, a fan screamed, “CHOKE! Rory’s coming for you!” just a few paces away from Harman’s face. Harman replied by chopping out of a greenside heather and dropping a 10-footer, proving the putter is mightier than the mouth. That’s essentially what Harman had to endure for the better part of four hours, listening to shots at his height and his manhood and who would be chasing him down, as he played a round that could forever define his career. Harman responded with a doggedness that sucked the life out of the very people attempting to stand in his way. All due respect to the new Champion Golfer of the Year.
Now, let’s be real: Harman’s name was unlikely presumed when evoking “Hoylake, blown upon my mighty winds, breeder of mighty champions.” The 36-year-old is not a journeyman, but he also has two wins in 339 previous starts. Clearly the oddsmakers didn’t fancy his chances, listing Harman at 125-to-1 to hoist the claret jug. His biggest achievement in professional golf was making the FedEx Cup Playoffs 12 straight years, both a feat and a backhanded compliment. Conversely, he entered the week 26th in the Official World Golf Ranking, he damn near won a US Open and finished T-6 at St Andrews last July. He’s also been playing well as of late, finishing T-12 or better in his past three starts. If you don’t know Harman’s name, it’s because you’re not paying attention.
His performance against this past, just weeks after Wyndham Clark’s triumph at Los Angeles Country Club, underlines that golf needs to reconsider who is capable of climbing its highest mountains. Brooks Koepka once called the majors easy to win, believing only 20 to 30 players had the capability to contend on the biggest stage when the lights shined brightest. There has always been the occasional surprise major winner – no need to remind the R&A of past winners like Todd Hamilton and Ben Curtis – yet wins by Clark and Harman, even Matt Fitzpatrick last year and Gary Woodland and Shane Lowry not long ago, illustrate that Koepka’s 20-to-30 estimation may be low in this era. It begs the question about whether we should afford more latitude to our definitions of success in professional golf – to not be so dismissive of track records or lack thereof. And maybe appreciate those who do achieve sustained success, for being a top player means routinely beating the likes of Clark and Harman and those we don’t consider formidable.
However, respect for Harman, for who he is and what he did, is not mutually exclusive from the fact that this Open lacked juice.
Tommy Fleetwood turned Royal Liverpool into a home game, and those in the gallery did all they could to get the Englishman in contention. Yet Fleetwood played his final 36 holes stuck in neutral, and as his chances went south so did the crowd’s spirit. For a brief window it appeared Rory McIlroy could do the absurd, birdieing three straight holes on Sunday to get within shouting distance. McIlroy is already one of the more beloved lads in the game, and with Fleetwood going sideways, Liverpool found its avatar in the Ulsterman. But McIlroy did what he’s made a habit of doing, which is to get in the mix before making an Irish exit from the proceedings. The fans here learned what McIlroy and everyone else already has, which is that it’s the hope that kills you.
Rahm. It had to be Jon Rahm. The Masters winner, the European Ryder Cup dynamo, the man called Rahmbo not just for his name and resemblance to Sylvester Stallone but because he seems capable of wiping out an entire village with his own bare hands. But needing a day that would be remembered forever, Rahm never truly threatened, ultimately failing to break 70.
The last hope was for Harman to collapse, which may explain why the crowd provided the occasional taunt in his direction. It wasn’t malice; it was desperation, hoping to incite the pressure that the competition could not. Unfortunately for them, Royal Liverpool does not have water hazards and Harman is not French. Harman had a few wobbles but kept the big mistakes at bay, playing conservatively because that’s what the situation called for. Between Harman’s plodding play and a relentless rain, the crowd was silenced into dazed resignation.
Frankly, it’s been that way most of the week. The course didn’t facilitate many fireworks but wasn’t breaking psyches or scorecards either, the wind only occasionally stopping by rather than setting up shop. The quirky 17th, the hole that was supposed to “ruin someone’s career”, proved uneventful. The biggest drama was whether protesters would cause a disruption, and the disruption was so tame that Billy Horschel was able to quell it himself. The most memorable thing that happened was how the bunkers were raked. And you know what? Golf was overdue for a downer. The major championships have been on a hot run for the better part of a decade, either by who was winning them or how they were won. Going back to 2013, only one major champion was outside the world top 35… and that was Phil Mickelson’s win against Father Time at the 2021 PGA Championship. We as a sport have been spoiled by how good the golf has been when the golf is supposed to matter the most. Maybe that’s why the crowds were so quiet. They were expecting the run to continue. They were expecting a succession plan to the rollcall of Woods and McIlroy and Hagen and Jones. They were expecting the type of magic that instantly produces a patina over what transpired. Instead they saw Brian Harman, and that is something they did not expect.