June 18, 2024

Brian Harman talks like a man who has come to understand his past. That’s why he can tell you about the guy who signed all those autographs.

That was him at Whatever Tournament in Whatever Town in two-thousand-whatever. The specifics don’t matter because it was always the same. He’d finish the round, stop by the scoring tent and then head to the clubhouse. That’s where, inevitably, fans leaning over a rope awaited, dangling hats or pin flags or who-knows-what. Their faces strained, pleading for him — or anyone, really, who was playing in that PGA Tour event — to come over and sign. Of course, Harman would do the right thing. He’d wander over, pull the cap off a Sharpie and oblige. Maybe he’d nod. “You’re welcome.” Maybe he’d even push back the corners of his mouth into something resembling a smile.

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But inside? Oh, that heat. The bad kind. A lid rattling atop the pot. “Internally, I’d be like, why do you want my autograph? I’m a middling tour player. I haven’t done anything. I’m not contending. I’m not one of the guys.”

All those years. All those autographs. Every time, he swirled a “B” into an “R” and scribbled whatever else he could muster. It was a reminder that the name on the paper didn’t live up to what it was supposed to.

He keeps talking …

“If I’m being honest, I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed by my career.”

Harman is at the point where he can say the hard part out loud because he’s only nine weeks removed from a moment of self-actualization that few ever come to. He’s still working to process it all. At age 36, after winning two PGA Tour events in 343 appearances over a 14-year professional career, he won the 2023 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.

It happened that fast. Harman missed the cut at this year’s Masters. He missed the cut at the PGA Championship. He tied for 43rd place at the U.S. Open. Another year on a résumé everyone long ago stopped reading. He was what he’s always been — a very solid PGA Tour player with many millions of dollars in career earnings and zero notoriety. He went to Royal Liverpool ranked a respectful, albeit highly overlooked, No. 26 in the world rankings. He hadn’t won a tournament since the 2017 Wells Fargo Championship.

But then it all came together over four days. A brazen, rip-snorting performance. A six-shot victory. A new world.

Now Harman is readying to travel to Rome for his first Ryder Cup appearance. It’s a bizarre, unexpected twist on a career that was otherwise approaching its vanishing point. Harman could have very well played out these later years of his career in relative anonymity and retired to his 1,000-acre farm in rural Georgia. Instead, he’s both the oldest player on the 12-man United States team and one of four rookies. He’s old enough that his first career PGA Tour win at the 2014 John Deere Classic came over runner-up Zach Johnson, who will be the United States captain this week.

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It isn’t easy to understand a new reality. But he’s trying.

“We’ve all got our own journeys and different reasons for being in different places at different times,” Harman says, looking for the right words, glancing around a converted barn near his family’s home in St. Simons Island, Ga., during a recent interview. “It’s not always apparent. But right now, I feel like I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”

In what feels like a lifetime ago, Harman was a former No. 1-ranked amateur golfer in the world and All-American at Georgia, one of college golf’s great powerhouses. He starred on the winning 2005 and 2009 Walker Cup teams and a 2007 Palmer Cup team, playing with guys like Anthony Kim, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. Still, Harman was, at various stages of his junior career, the can’t-miss, no-doubt, next-big-thing. He walked across the driving range like a cold cross-wind. Everyone glanced over.

That feeling is something Harman chased for much of his 20s. The feeling of knowing he not only belongs, but that others are trying to catch him. As a modestly successful PGA Tour career played out, the shadow cast by his teenage self spread long and never missed a step. He was supposed to win, not just play.

“I used to wax poetic about, ‘oh, I was sooo good when I was a junior golfer,’” Harman says. “But eventually you come to the realization of, well, you’re not 16 anymore.”

The game, as it does, raced past. After turning pro in 2009, Harman saw players he grew up beating suddenly hoisting trophies at PGA Tour events. In time, new guys — younger, stronger, longer — showed up and started winning. There was no way to keep up, no way to stop what was coming. He was trying to slow the rising seas with sandbags. He had a reputation for being “gritty” and “a bulldog.” All kindly parlance for a smaller guy who fights like hell, but comes up short.

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Today, thinking back, Harman admits to things no one wants to admit. The ugly stuff.

“The way that I felt watching some of my friends win — I hate the way that it made me feel,” he says. “I’m not proud of it. I feel guilty about it to this day.”

The problem with jealousy is it compounds. For Harman, as years passed, sediment built and settled, and built and settled. Even when Harris English, one of his closest friends, found success, Harman struggled not to see it as a reflection of his own shortcomings.

It festered in him. Worse, it distracted him.

“That jealousy will eat you to pieces,” he now says.

Harman married his wife, Kelly, in 2014. Then came three kids. The view gradually changed. From his late 20s, to his early 30s, to his mid-30s — he came to the realization that the expectations heaped upon him as a teenager manifested in him as an adult.

Then came another realization.

“I can’t believe I’ve been such an asshole,” Harman says. “So selfish. There’s plenty of success out there for everyone who works for it. Winning and being successful is a product of someone’s inner strife and hard work and dedication — all the things that I love about people.”

Harman came to understand all of this in recent years. Seeing Kevin Kisner win the 2021 Wyndham Championship hit him as a moment of joy. He realized what he’d been missing out on.

It takes something to admit all this out loud. Harman is far from the only player on tour to stress eat the ultimate question: Why not me? Golf inherently juxtaposes one’s self-worth versus that of his or her friends.

The Open Championship win gave Brian Harman enough points to automatically qualify for the Ryder Cup. (Warren Little / Getty Images)

It wasn’t until winning the Open two months ago that Harman really came to understand the weight he’d been carrying for all those years. The win wasn’t a relief. It was a release. He felt days and weeks and years of struggle and doubt and pain rise off his shoulders, swept down the English coastline. Jeremy Elliott, Harman’s agent and longtime friend, says he saw Harman leave Hoylake with “profound self-awareness.”

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When he returned to action weeks later at the St. Jude Championship, Harman rolled a few putts on the practice green when a fellow player walked by to pass along congratulations.

“You know, I don’t feel any different,” Harman replied.

“Yeah,” the passerby said. “Well, you look different.”

He does, and it’s gotten him here. Harman did Zach Johnson (one of his closest friends on tour) a favor by qualifying for the U.S. team as a top-six points qualifier. He’s the oldest U.S. Ryder Cup rookie since 41-year-old Steve Stricker in 2008 and will be in a team room this week with a troop of young players he long ago watched breakthrough and had to swallow his envy. When someone like Justin Thomas walked onto the tour years back, winning tournaments and capturing an early major, Harman wasn’t exactly eager to build a bond. “Fact is, I would have absolutely killed to have a career like JT’s,” he says. But the ongoing Ryder Cup experience has brought with it some perspective. Harman and Thomas have grown close recently and are suddenly exchanging text messages regularly. Recently, Harman sent one note apologizing to Thomas “for taking so long” to come around to him. Harman has gotten to know Max Homa and Collin Morikawa, both of whom couldn’t possibly be more different. Last week, Homa sat aghast listening to a story of Harman’s catching an alligator by hand.

“I missed out on interacting with these guys,” Harman says, “and that’s on me.”

For a guy later in his career, Harman sure is learning a lot. He says “clarity has come by necessity.” All it took was nine weeks, one massive, cosmic shift, and now he’s one of the guys.

This time he’s asked, point-blank: Is this validation?

Harman pushes his shoulder up into a half-shrug. “I hate to say that now I belong.”

Spoken like a man who worked to get where he is.

(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton. Photos: Tracy Wilcox / PGA Tour,  Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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