How turning 30 inspired Brian Harman's strong season
Nothing like pondering the inexorable passage of time to inspire a former phenom’s best play. Brian Harman, a teenage star before social media destroyed our collective sense of context, used the occasion of his 30th birthday as motivation to produce the best play of his PGA TOUR career. It happened earlier this year. Jan. 19, to be exact. Harman was among friends and family in the California desert, the first round of the CareerBuilder Challenge making it a working birthday. He was 2-1/2 years removed from his lone PGA TOUR win and ranked 136th in the world. Off the course, his life was filled with joy – married in 2014 to wife Kelly, and blessed with their daughter Cooper, now 14 months old. But was his golf career offering the same kind of contentment, the same kind of joy? By now, he had expected multiple titles, heck, even major championships, on his mantle. Instead … one TOUR win. Time to take stock. “It’s kind of morbid, but I think about the end. I think about the end of my career. I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I want to realize that. I want to appreciate that. I don’t want to let anything go by,” Harman said. “You’re born, you’re a kid, you’re a young adult, you’re an adult, you get married, you have a kid and then what? The end. These things are happening without me slowing down time. It’s real. It keeps ticking.” When asked what a 16-year-old Brian Harman – the one who won the U.S. Junior Amateur at Columbia Country Club, an event televised on ESPN – might have said to himself at the start of 2017, he imagines a sharp exhortation. “Get with it, bud. How are you not contending more? What happened?” Harman’s best play has often been in response to a challenge -- both real and imagined -- and this was no exception. Days after that milestone birthday, he finished third in the CareerBuilder, two shots behind former Georgia teammate Hudson Swafford. Then in May at the Wells Fargo Championship, he won his second TOUR title, holing a 20-foot birdie putt on the final hole to beat the world’s top-ranked golfer, Dustin Johnson, by a shot. A month later, he entered the final round of the U.S. Open with a one-shot lead. Playing in the final group of a major for the first time, Harman hung tough until some costly back-nine bogeys led to a 72 and a tie for second behind Brooks Koepka, who made four consecutive back-nine birdies. Harman’s seven top-10 finishes this season are tied for fourth-most on TOUR. If he can muster up some more strong play over the season’s final six weeks, even more accomplishments could be added to his resume. He’s 10th in the FedExCup and 12th in the U.S. Presidents Cup standings (the top 10 on Sept. 4 will earn automatic spots on the team). He’s never played in the TOUR Championship or played for the U.S. since turning pro. And of course, there’s this week’s PGA Championship. He’s hoping the confidence and experience he gained at the U.S. Open can spill into the season’s final major at Quail Hollow. As he said after his final round at Erin Hills: “I feel like I am trying to make up for some time lost.” Parents are usually a player’s pathway into the game, but neither of Harman’s played golf in Savannah, Georgia, where Harman was born and raised. A week off of school in February 1997 gave him a serendipitous start. He watched every minute of the telecast from the 1997 Phoenix Open, seeing Tiger Woods’ famous roof-raising hole-in-one and an 11-shot victory from Steve Jones, the reigning U.S. Open champion. That was enough to inspire him to pick up the game. Soon he was stealing $6 from his mother’s change jar in the laundry room and riding his bike two miles to Southbridge Golf Club. “When I first picked up a club, I knew it was what I was going to do the rest of my life. I knew it right then. And I say that with all conviction because I believed it. I absolutely believed it. I knew there was nothing else that I was going to do,” he said. The question soon became: Could he do it better than anybody else? The early signs were encouraging. He was still in high school when he played his first PGA TOUR event, the RBC Heritage in 2004. He was 17 years old when he made his first PGA TOUR cut (T71, 2004 Travelers Championship) and remains the youngest player ever to represent the United States in the Walker Cup, amateur golf’s version of the Ryder Cup. He was the world’s top-ranked amateur before he began his college career at the University of Georgia. Every golf career has its ebbs and flows, though the severity of the fluctuations can differ drastically. The peaks of Harman’s career often can be attributed to moments of motivation that follow perceived slights. The hard part has been overcoming the periods of complacency in between. This time may be different, though. The fact that a large portion of his career is now behind him – this is his sixth PGA TOUR season – has inspired him to make the most of his time. “I’ve been out here awhile,” he said. “Now it’s really time to start doing the things that I thought I should be doing.” It may be cliché to say that smaller players – Harman is listed at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds -- have the proverbial chip on their shoulder, but that toughness is also necessary in today’s bomb-and-gouge game. “The TOUR, the way it’s going, everybody is huge and driving it 350 yards,” said former Georgia teammate Kevin Kisner. “Guys like us are less and less. If you don’t have that attitude, you’re going to get run over out here.” At Erin Hills, Harman told the story of his first football practice, when his father dropped him off and told him to not be disappointed if he didn’t play much. “And I said, ‘We’ll see about that.’” Then there was the debate in Savannah about who would be the better player, Harman or Tripp Coggins, who was several years older. “I’ll never forget, and I’m friends with this guy now, and this is a grown man. He was like, ‘Well, what happens if you level off, if you plateau? What happens then?’ He was in the Tripp camp. My golf career probably would not have been as good if I hadn’t been trying to prove that guy wrong my whole life,” Harman said with a laugh. And, of course, there’s the famous match with Rickie Fowler at the 2009 NCAA Championship. It was Harman’s senior year, and the first year that the tournament used a match-play format. Harman and Fowler were in the deciding match between Georgia and Oklahoma State. Harman made a 7-footer on the 15th hole to stay 1 down. “Apparently, Rickie and I inadvertently walked off the green and forgot to put the flagstick in the hole, leaving Brian to replace it,” then-Oklahoma State coach Mike McGraw wrote in his recent memoir, “Better Than I Found It.” “He would later say that our lack of common courtesy really upset him, and made him even more determined to win the match.” Harman birdied the final three holes for a 1-up victory. “You don’t want to give him an extra reason to get mad because he usually plays better,” said former college teammate Harris English. It’s no coincidence, Harman says, that his first TOUR victory came just weeks after he chastised himself for blowing an opportunity to win in Memphis, at the FedEx St. Jude Classic. “It’s almost always someone saying something, unknowingly and innocently, that gets me going,” Harman said. “Or just a revelation, just like that Memphis tournament. I really should have won that. … There’s always that catalyst, that one thing. And I’m hoping that’s what the U.S. Open was. I could have had that one. “It’s still tough to think about. As much as it was a learning opportunity, and there’s plenty I can learn from that going forward, that was an opportunity to win a tournament and I’m not going to get that opportunity back. I can see far enough down the road to know it will help me, eventually. I poured everything I had into it. And when you come up short, when you don’t get it done, it hurts because you’re like, I just wasn’t good enough this week. You have to be really honest with yourself in those situations. But I was present. I was ready. A couple more putts go my way, and I’d have been holding that trophy.” Harman said spending more time with Zach Johnson, a fellow resident of St. Simons Island, Georgia, has helped him this season. They see similarities in their games. Both are undersized players in today’s power game. Toughness and tenacity have gotten them this far, as well as strong wedge play. “I love the way he operates and cognitively processes things. Here’s the beauty of Brian. He works really hard and he’s hungry,” Johnson said. “He’s not trying to reinvent himself to play good golf. He’s taking what has been given to him and trying to polish his strengths. Everyone says, ‘I need to work on this because I’m not very good at it.’ Well, what are you really good at? Make that even better. I feel like he does a really good job of that.” The relationship with Johnson helped him add structure to his practice time, also a necessity when you have a young family at home. Johnson has helped him prepare for courses and, most importantly, own his identity. But Harman also has turned to the two-time major champion for advice on how to balance family life with the demands of the PGA TOUR. “It’s so hard out here because so many guys are so talented, it’s hard not to say, ‘I wish I could hit it higher, I wish I could hit it a little further.’ Zach doesn’t care. He says, ‘I have this game and I’m going to beat you with this game,’” Harman said. “I haven’t quite had an identity out here. This year, I’ve putted well, but I’ve putted well because I’ve given my putter more of a chance. I’ve started to hit it a little straighter. I’m going to let that be one of my strengths. It’s figuring out who you are, what kind of golfer you want to be instead of, ‘Well, today I’m going to try to hit it as far as I can. And the next day, I’m going to see if I can fade everything.’ No identity, no plan.” Like Johnson, Harman wants to keep the ball in play off the tee and then take advantage of a strong short game. Harman ranks fifth in Strokes Gained: Putting (+0.67) this season and 30th in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green (+0.29). Harman and Johnson, who earned his first PGA TOUR card at age 27, both cut their teeth on the mini-tours before making it to the PGA TOUR. The bulk of Harman’s college career didn’t live up to his standards, but he rebuilt his game before his senior season. “I had to pick myself up by my bootstraps. I had to re-learn how to do it,” he said. He was picked for his second Walker Cup team shortly after graduating with his finance degree, but flunked out of Q-School’s first stage that fall. So in 2010 he headed to the eGolf Professional Tour, which is based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, the same town he returns to this week to compete in his third PGA Championship. He never had to borrow money to compete in golf’s minor leagues, making ends meet with $20,000 a year from a club endorsement deal and his on-course earnings. “I look back fondly on those days, even though I was broke,” Harman said. “I made $6,000 in my first tournament and I thought I was rich. I thought I couldn’t spend it. Then I enter five more tournaments and it’s gone. “When it’s $1,200 per tournament, it costs $50,000 to play those mini-tours, but I reveled in that. I didn’t have a safety net. I never took a dime.” He drove the F-150 he’d received before heading off to college and ate “a lot of Wendy’s, the No. 6.” And there was the occasional turkey sandwich for breakfast to avoid the hotel’s powdered eggs. After two years in those minor leagues, Harman graduated from Q-School to earn his PGA TOUR card. “The sense of urgency was, ‘I gotta get somewhere.’ I can remember being in Q-School and (thinking), ‘It’s time,’” Harman said. “When I put my mind to something, I know I can accomplish anything. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s gotten harder to set my mind to something. I can remember when I was a kid, being so hard-headed. You couldn’t tell me I couldn’t do something. As you get older you get beaten down, you fail, you lose, things happen. It becomes a harder and harder emotion to find.” He found it on his 30th birthday. A turn of the calendar may have been all he needed.
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