Brian Harman speaks like a man who has come to terms with his past. That’s why he can tell you about the man who signed all those autographs.
It was him in the Whatever Tournament in Whatever Town at two-thousand-whatever. The details don’t matter because it’s always the same. He would finish the round, stop by the scoring tent and then head to the clubhouse. There, inevitably, fans wait leaning on a rope, dangling hats or pin flags or who-knows-what. Their faces were strained, pleading for him — or anyone, really, playing in that PGA Tour event — to come over and sign. Of course, Harman will do the right thing. He wants to wander off, uncap a Sharpie and oblige. Maybe he will nod. “You’re welcome.” Perhaps he would even push the corners of his mouth into something resembling a smile.
But inside? Oh, the heat. The bad kind. A lid that rattles over the pot. “Internally, I’d be like, why do you want my autograph? I am a middling tour player. I didn’t do anything. I’m not arguing. I am not one of the boys.”
All those years. All those autographs. Each time, he turns a “B” into an “R” and writes down what else he can get. This is a reminder that the name on the paper does not correspond to what it should be.
He kept talking…
“If I’m being honest, I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of my career.”
Harman is now 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 get to experience. He’s still trying 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.
— Ryder Cup USA (@RyderCupUSA) September 23, 2023
That’s how fast it happened. Harman missed the cut at the Masters this year. He missed the cut at the PGA Championship. He tied for 43rd place at the US Open. Another year on a résumé everyone has long since stopped reading. He’s what he’s always been — a very solid PGA Tour player with millions of dollars in career earnings and no fame. He ended up at Royal Liverpool ranked a respectable, if largely overlooked, No. 26 in the world rankings. He hasn’t won a tournament since the 2017 Wells Fargo Championship.
But then it all came together in four days. A shameless, rip-snorting performance. A win in six shots. A new world.
Now Harman is preparing to travel to Rome for his first Ryder Cup appearance. It was a strange, unexpected twist in a career that was otherwise nearing its tipping point. Harman played the final years of his career in relative obscurity and retired to his 1,000-acre farm in rural Georgia. Instead, he is both the oldest player on the 12-man United States team and one of four rookies. He’s old enough to have his first career PGA Tour win at the 2014 John Deere Classic over runner-up Zach Johnson, who will captain the United States this week.
It is not easy to understand a new reality. But he tries.
“We all have our own journeys and different reasons why we are in different places at different times,” Harman said, searching for the right words, and looked around a changed barn near his family home in St. Simons Island, Ga., during a recent interview. “It’s not always clear. But right now, I feel like I’m in the right place.”
In what feels like a lifetime ago, Harman was a former No. 1-ranked amateur golfer in the world and All-American in Georgia, one of the great powerhouses of college golf. He starred on the 2005 and 2009 Walker Cup winning teams and a Palmer Cup team in 2007, playing with guys like Anthony Kim, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler. However, Harman was, at various stages of his junior career, the unmissable, unquestioned, next big thing. He walked on the driving range like a cold wind. Everyone looked.
That feeling is something Harman has pursued for nearly 20s. The feeling of knowing that not only does he belong, but that others are trying to catch him. As a moderately successful PGA Tour career played out, the shadow cast by his teenage self stretched long and never missed a step. He should win, not just play.
“I used to wax poetic about, ‘oh, I was so good when I was a junior golfer,'” Harman said. “But eventually you realize, well, you’re not 16 anymore.”
The game, as it does, has passed. After turning pro in 2009, Harman has seen the players he grew up beating suddenly lift trophies at PGA Tour events. Over time, new men – younger, stronger, longer – appeared and began to win. There’s no way to keep up, no way to stop what’s coming. He is trying to slow the rise of the sea with sandbags. He has a reputation for being “rough” and “a bulldog.” All kind words for a smaller guy who fights like hell, but goes unanswered.
Now, in hindsight, Harman admits things no one wants to admit. Ugly.
“The way I felt watching some of my friends win – I hated the way I felt,” he said. “I’m not proud of it. I feel guilty about it to this day.”
The problem with jealousy is compounding. For Harman, over the years, the sediment was built and settled, and built and settled. Even when Harris English, one of his closest friends, found success, Harman tried not to see it as a reflection of his own shortcomings.
It settled on him. Worse, it distracted him.
“That jealousy will eat you up,” he says now.
Harman married his wife, Kelly, in 2014. Then came three children. Gradually the perspective changed. From her late 20s, to early 30s, to mid-30s — she realizes that the expectations of her as a teenager have been shown to her as an adult.
Then came another realization.
“I can’t believe I’ve been an asshole,” Harman said. “Too selfish. Lots of success out there for all who strive for it. Winning and being successful is a product of a person’s inner conflict and hard work and dedication — all the things I like in people.”
Harman has come to understand all this in recent years. It was a moment of joy to see Kevin Kisner win the 2021 Wyndham Championship. He realized what he had lost.
It takes something to admit it all out loud. Harman is far from the only player on tour to stress eat the ultimate question: Why not me? Golf naturally combines self-esteem in comparison to his friends.
It wasn’t until winning the Open two months ago that Harman truly understood the weight he had been carrying all those years. Winning is not a relief. This is an exit. He felt the days and weeks and years of struggle and doubt and pain rise from his shoulders, swept to the shores of England. Jeremy Elliott, Harman’s agent and long-time friend, said he saw Harman leave Hoylake with a “deep self-awareness”.
When he returned to action a few weeks later in St. Jude Championship, Harman was rolling a few putts on the practice green when a fellow player stopped by to pass out congratulations.
“You know, I don’t feel anything different,” Harman replied.
“Yes,” said the passerby. “Well, you look different.”
He does, and it brings him here. Harman did Zach Johnson (one of his closest friends on tour) a favor by qualifying for the US team as a top six point qualifier. He is the oldest US 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 has long watched succeed and has had to swallow his envy. When someone like Justin Thomas entered the tour years ago, winning tournaments and earning an early major, Harman wasn’t exactly eager to form a bond. “The truth is, I would absolutely kill to have a career like JT’s,” he said. But continued Ryder Cup experience has brought some perspective. Harman and Thomas became close recently and suddenly they were exchanging text messages regularly. Recently, Harman sent a letter apologizing to Thomas “for taking so long” to reach out to him. Harman meets Max Homa and Collin Morikawa, both of whom couldn’t be more different. Last week, Homa was shocked to hear a story of Harman catching a crocodile by hand.
“I missed interacting with these guys,” Harman said, “and that’s on me.”
For a guy so late in his career, Harman sure is learning a lot. He says that “clarity comes through necessity.” It’s all been nine weeks, a massive, cosmic shift, and now he’s one of the boys.
This time he’s asked, point-blank: Is this validation?
Harman shrugged his shoulder in a half-shrug. “I don’t want to say that now I belong.”
Spoken like a man who has worked to get where he is.
(Illustration: Eamonn Dalton. Photos: Tracy Wilcox / PGA Tour, Michael Reaves / Getty Images)