ERIN, Wis. – A day after some of the biggest stars in golf – guys such as Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day – exited stage left, a 30-year-old, 5-foot-7 lefty from Savannah, Ga., seized the spotlight at the 117th U.S. Open.
Not that Brian Harman is an unknown. He’s won twice before on the PGA Tour, including this year’s Wells Fargo Championship. Before that, he was a U.S. Junior champion in 2003, a three-time All-American at the University of Georgia and a member of two winning U.S. Walker Cup teams, in 2005 and ’09.
It’s just that not many people expected Harman to be in this position, leading this major championship at 12 under through 54 holes – the second lowest 54-hole mark at a U.S. Open behind Rory McIlroy’s 14 under in 2011. Harmon understands that, but he’s not exactly happy about it. That being said, there’s nothing he would enjoy more than proving the doubters wrong.
“I’m not going to delve into the things that I derive my motivations from,” Harman said, “but I’m certainly motivated.”
Harman has played with a chip on his shoulder practically his whole life, since his father, Eric, dropped him off at football practice as a kid and told him not to be disappointed if he didn’t get to play.
“I played a lot,” Harman said. And at middle linebacker, no less.
He’s showcased that toughness among the game’s best this week at lengthy Erin Hills. Not the longest hitter, Harman, who ranks 120th in driving distance, has made up for it by hitting fairways (88 percent, T-6 in the field) and greens (78 percent, T-7).
“When he’s gotten out of position, he’s done a really good job of getting back in position,” Harman’s caddie, Scott Tway, said. “He’s an incredible talent, first all, but he’s a really gritty competitor. He loves to compete. That’s a great combination.”
Harman’s college coach, Chris Haack, watched the final few holes from Charleston, S.C., before heading off to a wedding party.
“I love seeing him the mix,” Haack said. “He’s certainly no stranger to high-pressure situations.”
Haack still remembers the battle between Harman and Rickie Fowler in the quarterfinals of the 2009 NCAA Championship. Harman birdied his last three holes to defeat Fowler on the 18th hole, and send the Bulldogs past Oklahoma State and to the semifinals. (Fowler is just two shots back entering Sunday, while Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood trail Harman by just a shot.)
Everything was in place for Harman to make a seamless transition to pro golf. While he has tasted victory, things certainly haven’t gone smoothly, especially at the majors. Entering the week, Harman has made seven major starts, missing five missed cuts. His best major finish to date is a T-26 at the 2014 British Open.
Haack thinks Harman has just put way too much pressure on himself. Though Harman points out “it’s hard to play well when you’re not in them.” (This is Harman’s first major since the 2015 PGA, and the first U.S. Open he has been exempt for.)
“I think everyone has doubts, everyone has fears,” Harman said. “For me, just trying to figure out what they are and kind of rationalize them and deal with them.”
More recently, though, that pressure has lessened and Harman’s confidence heightened. Last summer, on June 8, Harman and his wife, Kelly, welcomed their first child, daughter Cooper Marie. Harman was excited to get back to his residence Saturday evening and relax with them. A perfect distraction from the task he’ll face on Sunday, as Harman tries to become the first lefthander to win the U.S. Open, and just the fourth player to win both the U.S. Junior and U.S. Open. (Johnny Miller, Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth are the others.)
“A lot of perspectives changed for him and I think he started realizing that he just has to go play golf,” Haack said. “… Age has a way of making you a little wiser and I think he’s just kind of learned his way through the natural process.
“Sometimes you just have to play them (majors) until you get really comfortable.”
At last, it seems, Harman is finally comfortable on the major stage. And motivated to get the job done.