By Barry Cronin
John Deere Classic Media Director
So far, so good, for Brian Harman, the 2014 John Deere Classic champion who leads the 117th U.S. Open with a 54-hole score of 12-under par going into Sunday’s final round at Erin Hills Golf Club.
The 5-foot, 7-inch Harman will be in Sunday’s final pairing at 2:54 p.m. with the 5-foot 10-inch Justin Thomas, whose incredible 9-under 63 on Saturday arrived either in spite of, because of, or irrespective of the effervescent pink pants he was sporting on behalf of Ralph Lauren. It was the lowest round in relation to par in U.S. Open history (1895) and bettered Johnny Miller’s historic 8-under 63 at Oakmont in 1973.
With Harman, 30, and Thomas, 24, both weighing in at around 150 pounds, this Battle of the Titans will feature a couple of pretty small - but definitely not lightweight - titans.
Despite Harman’s diminutive stature, the former Georgia Bulldog has been dismantling this 7,800-plus-yard chessboard with Kasparovian elan.
He’s tied for sixth in fairways hit off the tee, meaning he’s not subjecting himself to the impossible task of gouging his ball out of the long fescue – provided he could find it. Many of the big bombers who were supposed to have feasted on Erin Hills did just that earlier this week and are long gone.
Harman’s tied for seventh in greens-in-regulation, meaning his iron game is spot on for the most important shot in golf: the one to the green.
And he’s tied for 13th in putting. No explanation needed. Putting’s important because it’s theoretically 50 percent of a player’s total strokes.
All of which means, who cares if he’s T-58 in driving distance at 295.2 and trailing Thomas (T-16) in that category by 21 yards?
Harman doesn’t. He’s a man with a plan – and a chip on his shoulder.
Asked how long he has had that chip, Harman said, “Since the day my dad dropped me off at football practice and told me not to be disappointed if I didn’t play at all. I played a lot.”
“I’m more motivated by the fact that I’ve made a plan and I’ve stuck to the plan,” he said. “I’m more motivated by the way that I’m striking the ball. It’s the best I’ve struck the ball in a long time. And my short game is pretty good. I’ve been putting it pretty good (sic). So, I’m excited about all those things.”
Thomas, too, has a John Deere Classic connection. The Kentucky native and University of Alabama star received a sponsor exemption in 2013, the same year his good friend Jordan Spieth won his first professional event.
Thomas has won three times this season and four times in his short career, but he is still looking for his first major championship.
“I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to be like,” Thomas said. “I don’t know how I’m going to feel, but I’m excited for it.”
Harman had a pretty good idea of what it’s going to be like.
“Tomorrow, the wind is going to come out of the North,” he reported. “It’s going to blow, and the scores could be a good deal higher, if the weather comes to what they’re predicting.”
Which could mean that after a three-day birdie-fest across a rain-softened, wind-free and meticulously manicured portion of the Kettle Moraine, a U.S. Open in the brutal tradition just might break out.
2012 John Deere Classic champion Zach Johnson, a long-serving member of the tournament’s executive board, shot 4-under 68 Saturday and stands T-26 at 3-under for the tournament. He will tee off at 12:42 with Englishman Paul Casey.
Three-time John Deere Classic champion Steve Stricker (2009-’11), a Wisconsin native and resident, is at 2-under for the tournament after a third-round 69. He’ll tee off at 12:20 with Sweden’s David Lingmerth.
Jordan Niebrugge, who grew up in nearby Mequon, Wisconsin, received sponsor exemptions to the John Deere Classic in 2014 and 2016. The former Walker Cupper and Western Amateur champion is 2-over par for the tournament and will tee off at 10:19 a.m. with another big hitter, Gary Woodland.
Despite playing at more than 7,800 yards, Erin Hills has given up record low scores thanks to rain-softened fairways and greens and very little wind. Conditions were far tougher last month on media day.