Tour Confidential: Brian Harman’s brilliance, Justin Thomas’ woes, Ryder Cup intrigue
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Brian Harman’s lights-out victory at the Open Championship, a controversial hole at Royal Liverpool, Justin Thomas’ continued struggles and more.
Brian Harman was the runaway winner of the 151st Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, all but lapping the field with a six-shot victory. Harman, who had previously won just twice on the PGA Tour and not since 2017, was on few pundits’ short lists to prevail this week. How did he do it?
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): By not panicking. I think the word grit will be overused when discussing this win, but this golf course was a beast. It was never going to be simple getting for Harman to get through the final 36 holes after he’d built a five-shot lead, but he handled those moments of potential panic with steel. He never got out ahead of himself. His pace was plodding. He two-putted like a king. All things that keep your train on the tracks when things get dicey.
Jack Hirsh, assistant editor (@JR_HIRSHey): His putting was outstanding, but I was blown away by his driving. At a course where we knew you couldn’t hit it in the fairway bunkers, he rose to the task. His final tally for the week: no fairway bunkers and two greenside bunkers (he made par from both of them). I’ve rarely seen a reliable 5-10 yard draw like the one he was hitting Sunday. It was almost video game-like.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): The stats help tell the story. So does the psyche. When his third on 18 trickled into a greenside bunker, it was only the second time he’d found the sand all week. He was first in putting. First in fairways hit. That’s a pretty good formula anywhere, but especially Hoylake. So was the chip-on-the-shoulder toughness he showed. Quick bounce-backs after rare bogeys. Early on, it looked like me might start to spiral after a few fanned shots. But, man, was he tough.
Zephyr Melton, assistant editor (@zephyrmelton): Laser precision off the tee and a red-hot putter. It doesn’t matter if you’re at a distance advantage when you pick your spots and make seemingly every putt. Sometimes, it’s just your week.
Jessica Marksbury, senior editor (@Jess_Marksbury): My colleagues above are spot-on. Mistakes can and often do happen when you’re dealing with nerves, but Harman didn’t let anything become ruinous. With penal bunkers and internal OB to deal with, he didn’t card anything worse than a double all week — that’s really something.
In difficult conditions and against a pack of alpha-dog chasers, Harman seemed to barely break a sweat on the weekend. Where does his 13-under effort rank in the pantheon of dominating major performances (non-Tiger 1997 and 2000 division)?
Zak: I’ll quote Jon Rahm here: “He won by six, so there’s nothing really any of us could have done.” When you have the No. 2 player in the world acknowledging your dominance as if it was inevitable, it’s pretty incredible. Put this right next to Martin Kaymer’s eight-shot win at Pinehurst in 2014.
Hirsh: As I alluded to before, Harman played a game that was tailor-made for the course. I actually really like the comparisons to Tiger at Liverpool in 2006 given Harman was hitting his driver the same way Woods hit his 2-iron that week. I agree with Sean, the Kaymer comparison is fair.
Sens: Louis Oosthuizen at the Old Course comes to mind as well. What made it all the more impressive is how long he held that lead for — from early Friday morning on. Tough to do. But it didn’t have the feel of utter domination. Just a steady drip of excellent. Fun to see it done that way. A runaway win that didn’t involve pounding the course into submission.
Melton: I agree with my colleagues in the Kaymer comparison. Harman came out hot early and then strangled the life out of the tournament, much like what we saw at Pinehurst No. 2 in 2014. It didn’t make for a very exciting tournament, but it was extremely impressive.
Marksbury: I agree with Josh — although Harman’s lead was consistent throughout the weekend, his victory never seemed like a complete lock. There were some tense moments of uncertainty. I didn’t have the same “this thing is over” feeling watching him as I did with Kaymer and Oosthuizen, though Harman was just as steady in retrospect. Maybe that’s because, until now, he was somewhat untested on the major stage. Given what he accomplished, that won’t be the case if he finds himself in that position again.
Justin Thomas’ struggles continued at Royal Liverpool, where he opened with an 11-over 82 and went on to miss the cut by eight. Thomas has now missed the cut in four of his last six starts, a stretch that included a second-round 81 at the U.S. Open. What’s going on?
Zak: To me, it’s the interconnectivity of the game. That putter has been balky all year, and when one aspect of this game becomes all-consuming in its negativity, it tends to bleed into the others. His ball-striking hasn’t been as elite as years past. His driving hasn’t been as good, either. The disappointing finishes push him to get back on the horse and try again. Trouble is, simply playing more doesn’t always lead to the best results, either. It being Ryder Cup crunch time complicates things. As JT said, he may be trying to make that team too hard.
Hirsh: It’s gotta be in his head right? Things started to get out of sync and then the free-flowing nature to his game disappeared as he rushed to make corrections. I honestly think sitting out the playoffs and Ryder Cup might be good for him to reset everything. Take some time off. Look a how well a few weeks off did McIlroy in the spring.
Sens: You know the old saw. It’s 90 percent mental. And 10 percent mental. Maybe it starts as a mechanical flaw, but that’s impossible to disentangle from the loss of confidence that comes with it. And things begin to spiral. No one has ever been immune. Why should Thomas be?
Melton: Golf is just really really hard. Nearly every player goes through peaks and valleys during their career (Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler come to mind), and unfortunately this is a valley for JT. The margin between good and bad in golf is so thin; it’s not easy to get it back on track when things go sideways. He’ll figure it out sooner or later — he’s too talented not to.
Marksbury: It’s concerning that JT is unable to pinpoint what’s going wrong — but also so relatable! Playing the next two weeks will probably be really good for him. He probably just needs to build his confidence back up. Golf is a fickle game.
There are still several more events on the schedule before Zach Johnson will name his captain’s picks for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, but with the majors behind us, Thomas’ hopes are currently tenuous at best. What does he need to do in the coming weeks to earn a pick, or do you think Johnson takes JT regardless of his form?
Zak: I think JT makes this team not necessarily regardless of form. I think if he misses the cut in Minnesota and then again in North Carolina, it’ll be really tricky for Zach to select him. But that’s the thing: He shouldn’t miss those cuts. They’ll be relatively weaker fields at courses that can be picked apart. Even a lesser version of Thomas should do well enough there to merit a pick. And I think that’s exactly what will happen.
Hirsh: The makeup of this team is so interesting right now. There’s a number of guys (Collin Morikawa, Tony Finau, Cam Young, Sam Burns, JT) who we probably would have said were locks six months ago. Now, it’s unclear. I see about three spots for those guys and maybe a couple of other names. I don’t think JT is more deserving than three of them.
Sens: At this point, it’s hard to imagine Thomas playing on the team. But even harder to imagine him not playing. Awkward position for Zach Johnson. I suspect past performance will win out and Thomas will get the nod. But the pool of worthy candidates runs so deep, it would be great to see someone else get a crack at the team. The Ryder Cup is supposed to be an exhibition. Let’s see some others get a chance to exhibit what they’ve got.
Melton: Making some cuts would be a good place to start, and some top 10s surely wouldn’t hurt. As long as he doesn’t miss every cut for the rest of the season, I think ZJ takes a flier and puts him on the team. Thomas is one of the leaders in that team room, and having him around in Rome would be smart.
Marksbury: Despite his recent drop in form, JT isn’t that far off. It’s not like he’s No. 25 on the ranking, he’s currently 13th. If the team was picked tomorrow, I think he would be on it. He is a guy who rises to the occasion at the Ryder Cup like few others. But since we have some time before the picks are made, the next few weeks will be telling. It would behoove him to show he deserves it.
Royal Liverpool’s new par-3 17th was a hot talking point all week, with some players praising the hole and others calling its deep bunkers and severely sloped green banks too penal. Matt Fitzpatrick summed up his opinion on the design in two words: “Start again.” Your thoughts?
Zak: I think the hole may need some reconsideration. Perhaps removing that greenside bunker on the right, or lengthening it even, just a touch, while softening the surrounds. Perhaps a bit too much focus was paid to the idea of creating a Sawgrass-esque finishing par-3.
Hirsh: Fantastic hole. I love short iron par-3s that demand you to hit the green. We saw plenty of guys miss the green and still get up-and-down too. This is a major — there are supposed to be trainwrecks!
Sens: Maybe it was the relatively calm winds all week, but it didn’t seem overly penal at all. Fitzpatrick missed where you absolutely can’t miss and he paid the price. Overall, though, 17 didn’t add nearly as much teeth (or drama) as many hoped it would.
Melton: I thought it was a fine hole based on the broadcast, but I would’ve liked a bit more excitement from it. It was a hot talking point coming into the week, but it didn’t live up to the hype, in my opinion. Just a pretty standard par-3.
Marksbury: I understand Fitzpatrick’s criticisms, but he admitted that he hit the worst possible shot.And he birdied the hole in Rounds 1 and 3! I liked it. It added a bit of intrigue to the end of each round, but as Josh and Zephyr noted, not nearly as much as expected, given the outcry.
The men’s major season is [sniffle] over! What single memory from this year’s crop of tourneys most sticks with you?
Zak: Rory’s exit at LACC. He engenders such support wherever he goes, and lately it’s all just resulted in post-major sympathy. I followed his footsteps through the clubhouse after his second-place finish behind Wyndham Clark and saw the repeated waves of reality rush over him — from his wife, his agent, the LACC membership, even the security guard who flanked him all week. McIlroy will win another major eventually, but it’s impossible to tell when. And each time he leaves the property, it seems to be just as heavy as the last close finish. That must exhaust him to no end.
Hirsh: Jon Rahm’s final hole at the Masters was a beautiful ode to his hero Seve Ballesteros.
Sens: Maybe it’s because I had them both in my office pool, but I can’t shake the memory of Corey Conners and Viktor Hovland making devastating double bogeys in precisely the same bizarre way on consecutive days in the PGA Championship to take themselves out of the running. Both were very much in the mix when they came to the par-4 16th. And both were undone by the same oddball shot — blasting irons from a fairway bunker, directly into a bunker face.
Melton: Brooks Koepka strutting around Oak Hill like the BK of old. There’s no player in the modern game with more swagger than Koepka when he’s feeling himself, so it was fun to see him get back to his dominant ways.
Marksbury: Love the Koepka take, Z! Totally agree. I’ll go a different route: Rickie’s run at the U.S. Open. It really looked like it might finally be his time, but like McIlroy, he came away empty-handed. Both players were still so gracious in defeat, and are two players who I still believe will claim a major sooner rather than later. Bring on the 2024 Masters!