Brian Harman: Wins the John Deere Classic with a lot of mental discipline

Brian Harman won the John Deere Classic by coolly shooting a 5-under 66 when all the pressure he was subjected to on Sunday would suggest that he wouldn’t. But he began with a one-shot lead and he finished with a one-shot lead. He nipped tournament board member, unofficial host and Sea Island, Georgia, neighbor, Zach Johnson.

First of all, winless players are not supposed to be favored to win. This is his third year on the PGA Tour; he won his card in the 2011 Q-School by finishing T8. (Mitigating that somewhat was the fact that he was part of the Georgia teams that included Harris English, Russell Henley, Chris Kirk, Brendon Todd, all of whom have won already.) And second, at just 5’7″ and 150 pounds, he’s an unlikely source of PGA Tour power golf. Looks can be deceiving:

“Yeah, I’ve always been one of the shorter guys when I played football and baseball and basketball and all that kind of stuff.  That’s always been a source of motivation.  I don’t let it bother me really.  It doesn’t bother me, but there are times that it feels good to hit it by a guy that’s a little bit bigger than me. I just try to hit the back of that ball as hard as I can most times.”

The third reason that he was an unlikely winner was because he had just missed the two previous cuts, Tiger’s, Quicken Loans National and the Greenbrier Classic. But that assumed that one had anything to do with the other and that he would just take it without trying to do anything constructive about it:

“I went and saw my teacher [Jack Lumpkin]. We worked on Saturday, so [fiancee] Kelly and I drove home from the Greenbrier, it was about a 10‑hour drive, and I worked the next morning with Jack, and my alignment wasn’t very good, and I worked on it, and then we went to the beach on Sunday and I came back out Monday and I really thought about it a lot.”

“I didn’t do anything on Sunday but I thought about it.  It looked really good on camera on Monday and just gave me just a little bit of confidence coming up here, and then to get off to the start that I did [first-round 63] was what really kind of solidified it in my mind.”

Zach Johnson, ever gracious is defeat, described Harman as a gritty player who played simple golf. It takes one to know one as the old childhood saying goes:

“Yeah, I appreciate the way that Zach plays the game.  He does it the right way.  He does what he does extremely well, if not better than everyone else.”

“At the beginning of this year I kind of caught myself trying to imitate too many guys at once, and I just kind of made the decision to try to be a little bit better version of myself and to do the things that I know how to do and to see where that took me”

And Johnson was an integral part of Harman’s learning curve on what it takes to win. He was paired with Johnson when he won the tournament in 2012 while Harman was having a rough day (73):

“Obviously playing with Zach, that was the first time that I was anywhere close to a lead really my rookie year, and having to deal with just all the distractions of playing in the last couple groups, it’s a lot tougher than playing in the first group, for instance.”

“I actually talked to Zach about it, and he felt like that I was trying to get out of his way a little too much and that I needed to kind of stake my ground a little bit. I definitely learned a lot from that situation”

And one of the things that he learned was to keep things in perspective. It came up Sunday when Johnson and Scott Brown were out in front of him making birdies. While it didn’t distract him too much, he did say that it was on his mind until he began to birdie back himself:

“I knew that those guys were going to make birdies.  I would have been way more shocked if they weren’t making birdies.  I knew that I was going to — as good as I was hitting it, I was going to have some looks [at birdie] on the back nine, and that’s all you can ask for really.”

“No, it didn’t affect the way that I played any holes.  I tried to play every shot on its merits, and I was just satisfied to add them up at the end and see how I was doing. Once I made those three birdies [on 14, 15, and 16], I didn’t know where I stood until I stood on 18 tee box.”

On the drivable, par-4 14th, Steve Stricker blew his drive into the deep, lush weeds right of the green, while Harman got it up into the front left bunker. It took a small army of spectators and most of the allotted five minutes to even find the ball and then even more time to go through two rulings with an official. The first was for relief from an embedded ball and the second was for the unplayable lie he ended up with after the drop. His only relief was straight back from the ball and a trudge up the hill to a contiguous tee on another hole. It almost killed the caddie getting a yardage. Meanwhile, Harman is waiting down at the green to play his bunker shot. And his mind wandered briefly:

“Well, I caught myself a couple times thinking about the future today, and I just had to kind of reboot and say, all right, we’ve got six holes left.  The only way you’re going to get what you want is if you play these six holes really well.  I just kept doing that and kept doing that and kept doing that and just hoping the holes were going to run out.”

“I’m like, wow, I’ve got a two‑shot lead or I have a one‑shot lead.  Yeah, I was aware of what was going on all day for the most part, but I didn’t really start playing well until I could put that in the back of my mind because that doesn’t help.”

This is a tournament that, in addition to the win and getting into the Masters and the Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, you also get into the British Open for which the charter flight leaves right after the tournament business is over:

“Yeah, all those things you have to entertain those thoughts at some point or another.  I think anyone who says they blocked all that out, they’re being a little facetious.  But when those thoughts enter, it’s like, what’s the best way to get those things you want.  It’s like, I’ve got eight holes left and I’ve got to play these eight holes like I play them all the time.”

“For me it was just, all right, what’s the next hole like?  Obviously I was very excited to make a 3 there.  I was very pleased to make a 3 on that hole, but that excitement can’t carry over to the next shot, or it will affect the next shot.  That’s just something that you can’t afford to do, especially when Zach Johnson is shooting 64s.”

But these issues started to come up for him six holes before that three-hole birdie run began. Things became really tight for him:

“I think No. 8 was probably when it was the worst because I wasn’t feeling spectacular.  I had made a bogey on 5, and I didn’t hit a great shot into 8 [42 feet from the hole from 147 yards]. And I glanced at the leaderboard and I saw the guys were playing well, so that’s when I felt it, but I was able to calm down and hit three really good shots on 9 to make a birdie, and that kind of got me going”

Pulling all of this off playing from the lead — chasing has significantly less pressure because there’s nothing to protect — added to the pressure. There’s nowhere to hide. So knowing who you are and that you’re worthy is critical:

“Yeah, I mean, today it was very nerve‑racking.  It was very hard, probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever tried to do in my life.  Just trying to not let your mind run wild is the hardest part out there.  I knew that my golf game was good enough, and I just kept having to go back to that and just trust it.”

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