Savannah native Brian Harman began the final round of the U.S. Open in a position that has not always been kind to the players in that spot.
Over the past decade, at least 10 players have begun the final round of a major with the lead before crashing and burning on Sunday in ignominious fashion.
The list of players in that category includes some of the most prominent names in golf, among them Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods and Greg Norman, as well as players more in line with Harman’s status like Aaron Baddeley, Nick Watney, Brendan Steele and Shane Lowry, who led by four after 54 holes in last year’s U.S. Open, shot 76 and lost by four.
Like those 10 golfers, Harman did not win his major after leading with 18 holes to play, but unlike them, he didn’t lose it. Harman wound up in a tie for second at Erin Hills because Brooks Koepka, who began the final round just one shot off Harman’s lead, shot the second lowest score of the day – a 5-under 67 in windy conditions.
The low round of the day was a 66 by Hideki Matsuyama, the top-ranked player in the field as the game’s Nos. 1, 2 and 3 players all missed the cut. Matsuyama tied Harman for second when the former Georgia Bulldog bogeyed the final hole after his hopes of claiming a U.S. Open had trophy had been dashed.
Harman played an admirable round of golf considering he began the day leading the U.S. Open with 18 holes to play. He shot even par 72, a score that was bettered only by Koepka among the final four groups to tee off on Sunday. All 10 of the above shot 75 or higher in the fourth round.
Although Koepka wound up winning by four strokes with a record-tying mark of 16-under for the tournament, Harman matched him shot-for-shot for 11 holes in the final round. The two were tied for the lead for most of the day before Harman suffered his first bogeys on the back nine for the week at holes 12 and 13.
Koepka, playing in the next to last group, then birdied 14, 15 and 16 to pull away from Harman, who responded with birdies on 14 and 16, not enough overtake the leader.
Prior to the tournament, Harman had never contended in a major, having competed in only seven during his six seasons on the PGA Tour. He had missed the cuts in his first two U.S. Open starts, but that was never evident on a course that frustrated many of the game’s best players and seemed designed to benefit the bombers in the field such as Koepka.
Harman was a major factor in the U.S. Open from the first round, when he shot a bogey-free 67 to end the day just two shots off the lead of Rickie Fowler in a tie for fourth. He followed with a 70 to share the 36-hole lead with Fowler, Koepka and Tommy Fleetwood, Harman’s playing partner the first two days.
A second 67 on Saturday propelled Harman into the lead after 54 holes, one ahead of Fleetwood, Koepka and Justin Thomas, who became the first player in U.S. Open history to shoot 9-under par in a round.
Koepka quickly assumed the lead in the final round with birdies on the first two holes, while Harman had to scramble for pars after errant tee shots. Harman pulled even when he holed a long birdie putt on the third, and the two remained tied until Koepka rolled in a lengthy birdie attempt on the eighth. Koepka three-putted the 10th to fall back into a tie, and Harman let a chance to grab the outright lead slip away when he just missed an excellent birdie opportunity at the 11th.
Harman lost the lead when he drive into the tall fescue off the 12th fairway, and made another bogey when he three-putted the 13th, matching his bogey total for the first 65 holes. Harman rebounded with a superb third shot to birdie the par-5 14th, but lipped out his birdie try at the 15th. A beautiful tee shot within a few feet on the par-3 16th led to another Harman birdie, but that only pulled him within three of the lead after a third straight Koepka birdie.
“It bites a little bit right now,” Harman said to open his post-round press conference with the U.S. Open media. “I just wish I was able to put a little more pressure on the course. I just didn’t drive it as well today as I wanted to.
“I hit some terrible drives on 1 and 2 but made pars, made a great birdie on 3, and then I just kind of thought if I keep parring, I was going to have a really good chance. And I would have if Brooks hadn’t played so well.
“I don’t believe in moral victories. I had an opportunity today and didn’t get it done. But at the same time, I didn’t feel as though I lost a golf tournament. I think that Brooks went out there and won the tournament.”
Koepka, 27, is one of golf’s most touted young pros with a well-traveled resume that was a frequent topic of commentary on the Fox broadcasts of the tournament. His path to the PGA Tour went through some distant parts of the globe during his stay on the European Challenge Tour, where he won four times in 2012 and ’13. His win in a high profile European Tour event in Turkey 2014 put him on the golf map, and his most recent victory came last Fall in Japan.
Prior to Sunday, Koepka’s only win on the PGA Tour came in Phoenix in 2015, but he racked up enough top finishes, several of them in majors and WGC events, to make the 2016 Ryder Cup team.
Harman, 30, has been on the national golf stage considerably longer than Koepka, but much of his time in the spotlight came during his amateur career, which escaped the attention of the largely uninformed Fox broadcasters, particularly lead announced Joe Buck.
Even though Harman won the Wells Fargo Championship in North Carolina six weeks earlier and contended a few weeks later in the Colonial Invitational, Buck referred to Harman as “coming out of nowhere,” early in the U.S. Open, apparently believing his only relevant golf history was the missed cuts in previous U.S. Opens.
Harman has a distinctive background that doesn’t quite fit into an easily displayed box for golf broadcasters who don’t follow the sport on a regular basis. He was one of the most prominent junior golfers in the U.S., winning the U.S. Junior Championship in 2003, and twice made the U.S. Walker Cup team, albeit four years apart.
His first Walker Cup appearance came in 2005 just before he entered college in Athens. He won three GSGA championships along with his USGA title, taking the GSGA Junior tin 2002 and ’03 and the Georgia Amateur in ’05 at Savannah GC in his hometown.
Harman, who has settled on St. Simons Island, won high profile college tournaments in the Fall of his freshman and sophomore seasons at Georgia, but never won again during his time in Athens, and unlike teammates Chris Kirk, Brendon Todd, Russell Henley and Harris English, never achieved first team All-America status. Harman was second team All-America three of his four seasons, but missed out on a Walker Cup selection in 2007, even though he won the Porter Cup that year.
Thanks to post-UGA wins in the Dogwood Invitational at Druid Hills GC and the Northeast Amateur, which he also won during a busy and successful Summer in ’05, Harman returned to the Walker Cup in 2009, but faded from view for a few years as his pro career got off to a relatively slow start.
Harman spent most of 2010 and 2011 at the mini-tour level before earning his PGA Tour card at Q-school in late 2011. Although he scored a win in 2014 in the John Deere Classic, edging out fellow St. Simons’ resident Zach Johnson, a native to the Quad Cities area, and qualified for the Tour Championship that year, Harman’s first five seasons on the PGA Tour were mostly uneventful. And Harman did not make much noise in the two seasons following his first victory.
But this year has been different, beginning with a tie for third in the southern California desert in January. Harman has already matched his career high with six top-10 finishes, and exceeded his career-best total of top-25s with 11.
Harman’s tie for second in the U.S. Open boosted him to 10th in the FedExCup standings and a career best 27th in the World Golf Rankings, and puts him in position to qualify for the Presidents Cup team at No. 9 in the standings.
As one of the shortest players on the PGA Tour at 5-foot-7, Harman has been at a size disadvantage since he was a youngster, but has used that to give him more incentive to succeed. He did not win the U.S. Open Sunday, but he emerged from the battle without the taint of failure that marked the final round collapses of many of his predecessors in that situation.
Don’t expect Sunday to be the last time Harman is a contender in the final round of a major.