Harman proves he has game to compete at Masters

Brian Harman hits from the fairway on the second hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament on Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Brian Harman hits from the fairway on the second hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament on Thursday, April 8, 2021, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Credit: Gregory Bull

Credit: Gregory Bull

Brian Harman was one of the last players to scurry into Augusta National before they pulled up the drawbridge on Masters qualification.

On Thursday, he demonstrated his appreciation for the late invitation, shooting a 3-under 69 and holding down a tie for second place, four strokes behind Justin Rose, entering the second round. This was an unlikely development on a couple fronts.

First off, despite his 10 workman-like years on the PGA Tour, Harman’s performance in the major championships has been pretty dismal. And secondly, he is absolutely the wrong dimensions (5-feet-7, 150 pounds) for a course that has been so elongated as to render shorter hitters an endangered species. Perhaps qualifying for the Masters only 12 days before playing in it left less time to consider his odds.

“Yeah, probably so,” he said. “I mean, the previous two times I’ve played it, I’ve certainly looked forward to it and maybe I prepared too much for it.”

Not possible this spring. One of six former University of Georgia players in the field, Harman needed three consecutive up-and-down on Nos. 5, 6 and 7 to save par before steadying himself for a brilliant finish with three birdies on the closing six holes. With his previous two Masters, this was just his second sub-par round and while also shot a 69 on Sunday in 2018 in his last visit here, that gained him a tie for 44th place. Now he runs with the leaders.

“I just kind of came in here and I know the course pretty well,” he said. “I’ve played here bunches of times. I love it around here. It’s just a matter of having my game ready.”

His game had been somewhat loose until the last month. He tied for third in the Players Championship, his best finish anywhere in two years. Then at the WGC Match Player on March 27, he advanced to the quarterfinals, where he was eliminated by Matt Kuchar. (Oh, the sting: a Georgia Tech alum.) But that was enough to nudge Harman from 59th to 49th in the World Golf Rankings, just inside the top-50 in the final event the Masters considers for WGR qualification.

“I’m happy with where my short game is,” he said. “It’s something I always neglected. I just kind of took it for granted. It’s something that I can’t afford to be average. It’s got to be really good for me to contend.”

It’s got to be really good at Augusta National, because Harman’s game off the tee leaves him at a distinct disadvantage against his contemporary long-ballers. Take No. 13 on Thursday. His drive carried just 283 yards (that’s 12 yards shy of the current Tour overall average) on the 510-yard par-5. But he busted a 230-yard second shot to the far left side of the green, with the pin cut to the far right, and was able to two-putt from 84 feet for birdie.

Even when he powered a tee ball on the par-5 15th (302 yards!), he had to atone for a poor chip from behind the green that left him 34 feet short of the hole. His birdie putt just curled in over the left edge of the cup.

“Augusta special side door,” he said.

The Masters has not always marginalized the vertically challenged player. Gene Sarazen, who won the second championship, stood 5-5-1/2. Thirty years ago, Britisher Ian Woosman won his only Masters at 5-4 and 160 pounds. Gary Player won three times here at 5-7 and 150. Canadian Mike Weir, like Harman a left-hander, won in 2003 at 5-9 and 155.

But that all changed when the tournament committee responded to Tiger Woods’ domination of the place. When Woods completed the Tiger Slam in 2001, Augusta National played to 6,985 yards. The course the field tangles with this weekend measures 7,445 yards. The 460 yards they redesigned into the place essentially added another long par-4.

This is hardly new information for Harman. He faces the same challenge every weekend. He may rank 143rd on the Tour in driving distance (292.4 yards) but he converts the disparity into 22nd in scoring (70.243). This is his life.

“I think there’s still plenty of room in the game for a guy like me,” he said. “I don’t make any bones about not being able to carry it 300, but I don’t think you have to.”

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