AUSTIN, Texas — In 2018, in his march to the WGC-Match Play, Bubba Watson began his knockout round campaign with a 2-and-1 win over his fellow Georgia Bulldog Brian Harman. The result, part of Watson’s run to the title, obscured what had been a brilliant group stage for Harman, highlighted by a 5-and-3 win over Rory McIlroy to make the weekend.
On Saturday morning, three years later at the same course, it looked for a moment like a case of history repeating. Yet again, Harman won his last two group stage matches to advance, yet again he ran into Watson, and this time the start was disastrous: Watson made birdie on four of his first six holes, and before Harman could blink, he was 4-down and staring down the barrel of a blowout.
To say that things changed from that point on would be a massive understatement. Harman simply went unconscious, and rattled off birdies with incredible proficiency. Sixth hole: Lays up on the par 5, gorgeous wedge, buries the three-footer for birdie. Seventh hole: sticks the tee shot to six feet, no doubter for two. Eighth: Fifteen-footer, bottom of the cup. Ninth hole: Thirty-two feet, why not? Tenth Pinpoint approach to gimme length on the short par 4. Eleventh: Another par 3, another dart to five feet. Twelfth: Laid up on the par 5, stuck the approach to four feet, birdie a given. Thirteenth: Opted not to attack the water with an ambitious drive, hit his second to— you guessed it—four feet, drained the birdie.
When the dust settled it was eight straight birdies, and seven straight holes won for Harman. Poor Bubba never made worse than par until no. 13, but was powerless to resist the blitzkrieg. All the while, Harman played his game, “fairways and greens and making putts,” usually well short of his opponent off the tee, but clearly not letting the disparity rattle him.
When he missed his 19-foot birdie attempt on 14, the onslaught was over. To Watson’s credit, he went on a mini-run of his own, taking 15 and 16 to bring some doubt back. (“Even when I was on the run,” Harman said afterward, “I knew I had to put him away because I knew he was going to make a run.”) But it was too little too late—when Watson put his tee shot on 17 into the gulley, Harman’s time had come. He backed off his own tee shot several times, understanding the circumstances, and placed it safely on the right side of the green. He cozied his birdie attempt up to the cup, Watson conceded, and Harman was on to the quarterfinals.
When asked how he avoided getting down on himself early, Harman rejected the premise of the question: “I was down,” he said. “When I saw that I was playing [Watson], I can’t say I was excited … because he’s such a hard competitor … it’s nice to get the best of him today, because I think he’s like 10-0 against me.”
Along reaching the final eight and a match against Matt Kuchar (who beat Jordan Spieth with a birdie on 18), Harman’s win sends him into the World top 50, which means he’ll be at Augusta in April. For the points, for the Masters, and for the shot at a WGC win, he picked a great moment to turn in one of the best stretches of his professional life.