British Open experience has Brian Harman confident for Masters

AUGUSTA – Brian Harman said one of the things that fueled him during his run to the 2023 British Open Championship last July was the heckling he endured between greens and tees, especially down the stretch of what ended as a six-stroke victory at Royal Liverpool Golf Club in Hoylake, England.

An entirely different kind of noise accompanies Harman’s annual walks here at Augusta National Golf Club. The UGA graduate and Savannah native will be playing in his sixth Masters when this year’s tournament tees off Thursday morning. Pretty much all he hears from tee to green here every year is a cavalcade of “Go Dawgs.” To date, his best finish has been 12th in 2021.

“It seems like I do better when everyone’s rooting against me than rooting for me,” Harman said before embarking on his late-afternoon practice round Monday. “So, that’s a new challenge. Around Augusta, there’s a lot of Dawgs out here and you hear it all week and it’s fantastic. So, I’ll have to try to channel it.”

Perhaps he can convince all those Bulldogs in the galleries to grouse rather than bark.

“Yeah, maybe I’ll just pretend that they’re yelling mean things,” Harman quipped.

It has been eight months since Harman ran away with the 151st Open among a shower of jeers and rain. Most of those 260 days, he said, have been a blur.

Not only has there been no victory parade back in his hometown, he’s barely been back except to pass through on his way home on St. Simons Island. There, his wife and three children have dominated his attention. Occasionally, too, some hunting.

Harman’s thirst for the sport beget him the nickname “Brian the Butcher” by the British tabloids after he shared his passion for it following his victory at Liverpool. But that experience did nothing to curtail his enthusiasm.

Harman’s greatest accomplishments since Hoylake apparently are not his runner-up finish at The Players last month or the T-5 in Maui to start the calendar year.

No, it was his 7-year-old daughter, Cooper, “killing her first bird” two weeks ago. That would be a wild turkey, currently in season in Georgia.

“It was one of the most memorable moments of my whole life. I hope for her, too,” Harman said, laughing.

As great as those moments were, the British and Cooper’s turkey, they might pale in comparison to what winning a Masters would be for Harman. Though his appearances as a 38-year-old professional have been limited to six, he has played Augusta National many other times, including all four years that he played for the Georgia Bulldogs. His first experience was well before that, when a family friend from Savannah brought the 14-year-old budding junior champion to play 18 holes.

Despite that, Harman has been in contention here only briefly a couple times. Four of his six appearances have ended on Fridays, including last year’s 77-74—151. His Masters’ low round is 69 and he has logged only three rounds under par.

“I had a pretty good chance several years ago. I think I was either a shot or two shots back going to the weekend,” Harman said. “And a couple more breaks on the weekend, maybe could have given Hideki (Matsuyama) run, but just wasn’t meant to be.

Like Rory McIlroy and others who have struggled to breakthrough in Augusta, Harman decided to shake up his routine this year. Instead of taking off the week before the Masters as he usually does, Harman completed in the Texas Valero Open last week in San Antonio.

Harman didn’t necessarily light up TPC San Antonio, but he did make the cut, finish in a tie for 25th and card his low round of 68 on Sunday.

“For me, there’s nothing that replaces competitive golf as far as warming up for a big golf tournament,” Harman said. “… Last week, I had a couple of the same feelings that I usually would have had this week: I was rusty, made a couple, you know, brain-dead bogeys that I felt like. So hopefully got all that out of my system and can be a little sharper and ready to go this week.”

Long known as a driver’s course, Augusta National’s 7,555-yard course will never be an ideal place for Harman. But don’t sell him short on his ability to get his ball down the fairway. Standing just 5-foot-7 and weighing in at 155 pounds, Harman can and often does hit the ball well over 300 yards. More importantly, his ball tends to end up in the short grass. While his average driving distance of 293.6 yards ranks 156th, Harman 66.8% driving accuracy average stands15th.

Another reminder here: Harman’s a lefty, and lefties have done all right in Augusta.

Three have been fitted for green jackets, including Phil Mickelson three times, fellow Bulldog Bubba Watson twice and Mike Weir.

“I think the conditions kind have to go in my favor,” Harman admitted. “It’s a long golf course; I make no bones about that. I don’t make any excuses about how far I hit the ball or make any gripes about how long courses are. I just show up and try to be ready to play.”

Armed with last year’s experience in Hoylake, Harman heads into the 88th Masters more confident than ever.

“I feel like I’m slightly more mature, ready,” he said. “I’ll be more ready this week than I have been years past.”