Brian Harman turned back every challenge in the British Open, from big names to bad weather, and took his place among major champions Sunday with a victory that was never seriously in doubt at Royal Liverpool.
Harman twice responded to a rare bogey with back-to-back birdies, leaving everyone else playing for second. He closed with a 1-under 70, making an 8-foot par putt on the last hole for a six-shot victory.
At age 36, he is the oldest first-time major winner since Sergio Garcia was 37 when he won the Masters in 2017.
Garcia wasn’t a surprise. Not many would have seen this victory coming at the start of the week. Harman had gone 167 tournaments over six years since his last win in the 2017 Wells Fargo Championship. This is only his third title in his 12 years on the PGA Tour.
And then the avid outdoorsman made winning golf’s oldest championship look as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.
Masters champion Jon Rahm birdied his last hole for a 70 to make it a four-way tie for second place with Tom Kim (67), Sepp Straka (69) and Jason Day (69).
That turned out to be the B-flight.
“He won by six, so there’s nothing really any of us could have done,” Rahm said.
Harman took the lead on Friday morning with the second of four straight birdies early in the second round. He never trailed over the final 51 holes, leading by five shots after the second round and five shots after the third round.
He started the round in the rain with a smattering of boos from the grandstand, fans either wanting a big star or perhaps not paying attention to the masterclass performance Harman had delivered. Playing with Tommy Fleetwood of England on Saturday, Harman said he heard a few comments he described as unrepeatable.
But he is full of Georgia grit, never wavering in rain or sunshine or wind.
He walked up toward the 18th green to a standing ovation, and tapped his hand to his heart to acknowledge the fans as he walked off the green. All that remained was signing his card — a 13-under 271 — and return to collect the silver claret jug, the oldest trophy in golf.
Brian Harman, champion golfer of the year. Imagine that.
“I’m going to have a couple of pints out of this here trophy, I believe,” Harman said.
The finish, even without any drama, was fitting. Harman hit his approach from 194 yards into a pot bunker right of the 18th green, only the third bunker he was in over 72 holes. That’s the biggest key to Royal Liverpool. And he made the putt, giving him only 106 for the week.
“I doubled down on my process and I know it’s boring and it is not flashy,” Harman said. “But, until hitting that last bunker shot, I have not thought about winning the tournament.”
There was one anxious moment early on Sunday in a steady rain. Harman hit his drive into a gorse bush left of the fairway on the par-5 fifth hole and had to take a penalty drop. It led to his second bogey of the round.
Rahm, playing in the group ahead, looked to get one of those breaks that fall to major winners. His drive had landed between bushes, allowing for a shot just short of the green and a birdie.
The lead was down to three shots. The rain wasn’t stopping. The rest of the links, along with the pressure that comes with Sunday at a major, was still ahead of him.
Harman drained a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 sixth, a 25-foot birdie putt on the next hole and he was on his way.
He dropped another shot on the par-3 13th that reduced his lead to four shots with five to play. And then he made birdie from 40 feet on the tough 14th, and followed with an 8-foot birdie on the 15th.
The year ended in more disappointment for Rory McIlroy, who had won the Scottish Open last week and was the last Open champion at Royal Liverpool in 2014. He was never really a factor, although he certainly teased the large galleries that followed him.
Sunday was no exception. McIlroy started nine shots behind and ran off three straight birdies, starting with a 50-foot putt on No. 3. He was within five shots and still on the front nine. And then he stalled, not making another birdie until Harman was well on his way.
McIlroy was one shot better each round — 71-70-69-68 — to tie for sixth with Emiliano Grillo (68). That wasn’t nearly enough to match a performance like Harman delivered.
“I’m optimistic about the future and just got to keep plugging away,” said McIlroy, who now has gone 34 majors since winning his last one in 2014.
Cameron Young, the runner-up last year at St. Andrews, played in the final group with Harman and never applied any pressure. He hit a chip that rolled off the side of the green on the opening hole and made bogey, and he missed way too many putts inside 10 feet.
He closed with a 73 and tied for eighth with Shubhankar Sharma of India, who had 17 pars and one birdie in his round of 70.
Harman now has a five-year exemption in all the majors and joins the list of Open champions at Hoylake that include McIlroy and Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen.
He also can think about a return to Europe in September for the Ryder Cup in Rome. The victory, worth $3 million, moves him comfortably to No. 3 in the standings. The top six a month from now automatically qualify.
Harman never has played in a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup. He moves to No. 10 in the world. Over four days at Royal Liverpool, he certainly looked the part.