Masters 2014: Harris English is sleeper pick

Though he has dreams of winning the Masters, English won't make any green-jacket predictions.
Ben Van Hook

Harris English is used to signing scorecards without being asked to sign much else. So it hardly shocked him after his second round at the 2013 BMW Championship to find fans zeroing in on another player. There, by the 18th green at Conway Farms Golf Club outside Chicago was Phil Mickelson, swarmed by autograph-seekers. Ditto Matt Kuchar, who smiled and nodded, scribbling his name on caps and shirts.

Amid cries of "Phil!" and "Kooch!" English sidestepped the frenzy, but as he neared the clubhouse he wound up face-to-face with a starstruck fan. In one hand, the guy held a flag from the Olympic Club, site of the 2012 U.S. Open; in the other, a black marker.

"I was, like, 'Dude, are you sure?'" English says, but he signed the flag and handed it over.

"Hey," the perplexed fan said, looking at the signature. "You're not Webb Simpson."

No, he's not. While another Tour pro might have been offended by the mix-up, English found it both funny and fitting. "I felt bad for the guy, but that's just how it is, I guess," he says. "I fly under the radar."

On Tour, "under the radar" can mean "over the cut line," but English stands as an exception. As other twentysomethings have hogged the headlines — Rory McIlroy with his struggles, Jordan Spieth with his sparkling play — the soft-spoken, 24-year-old English has gone about his business without fanfare, building a breakout campaign — with two Tour wins in a span of 14 starts — the first, in June, at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, the second at Mayakoba in the fall — that's been as quiet as his personality. In the off-season, filling in for an ailing Brandt Snedeker, he paired with Kuchar to scorch the field at the Franklin Templeton Shootout in December. Their 58 in a two-man scramble matched a tournament course record and put their three-day total at 34-under par.

Early 2014 brought little letup, as English played on the weekend in his first eight starts, notching four top-10 finishes along the way. Yet through it all — even as he pushed his career earnings past the $5 million mark, surged into the top 50 in the World Ranking and earned his first invite to the Masters — English provided little SportsCenter fodder. He gave unassuming interviews and refrained from fiery fist-pumps.

Fans have responded in kind. "Not too many autograph requests," he says. "I can probably count them on one hand."

English is okay with this. In fact, he prefers it. His peers, at least, have taken notice. Snedeker, a friend and fellow St. Simons Island resident, likens English to a young Davis Love III, with his rangy build (English is six foot three), placid outlook and languid swing.

"He doesn't show you much on the surface," Snedeker says, "but you know he's watching closely, taking it all in."

Other veteran pros have made much bolder proclamations. "Harris English is going to be The Man in American golf if you can't tell yet," Bob Estes wrote on Twitter in February. "Just give him a little more time."

Next up for The Man is the grown-up challenge of Augusta National, which he played as a college star at the University of Georgia. On paper, the tournament sets up well for English, who's a big hitter with soft hands and a young man's nerves. Then again, the Masters is famously unkind to rookies — a first-timer hasn't won since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 — and English declines to talk of expectations for a week that is sure to test a lot of things, including his knack for not drawing a crowd. "It's a big deal, for sure, it being my first, my being from Georgia, the fact that I'll have friends and family there, but I'm trying not to get ahead of myself," he says.

English got his first glimpse of Augusta on TV as a boy growing up in Valdosta, Georgia, four hours south of Magnolia Lane. The youngest of four children, he revealed his interests early. "Even when he was little, you could set a truck down next to him along with a ball and he wouldn't even look at the truck," his father Ben says. At nearby Sunset Country Club, where the family had a membership, Harris learned largely by emulation, dawdling along beside his dad. At 11, Harris posted his first score in the 60s. A year later, he shot 68–69 to win the Future Masters in Dothan, Alabama, beating a field full of pros of tomorrow.

As other sports fell by the wayside, his parents made sure that golf took its proper place: second to schoolwork. They nudged him toward Baylor, a prestigious Tennessee prep school, after which came a four-year collegiate All-American career at Georgia. In college, English fit the profile of just another kid in a cap and collared shirt. "You wouldn't call him a flashy player," says Mike Taylor, English's swing coach. "His game sort of fits his personality."

Although English is long (25th in driving distance), he isn't Bubba long. And while his putting has improved, it't not his strength. The full measure of his talent isn't best relayed in metrics. Taylor cites English's decisions instead, like the one from the summer of 2011, when English held on to his amateur status in order to compete in the Walker Cup. In the interim, he entered two Nationwide Tour events. "And what does he do?" Taylor says. "He goes out and wins one of them." (Only two other amateurs have won on what is now the Tour.)

When the two men started working together, English had a slightly inside takeaway, and he came across the line a fraction at the top. He has since corrected that, widening his swing arc for more consistency while tapping the power that his height provides. A self-professed "feel player," English doesn't like to muddy matters with mechanics. His most dramatic adjustments have involved his mindset. In 2012, two strong rounds at the Players Championship landed English in the second-to-last group on Saturday alongside the eventual winner, Kuchar. While English stumbled to a 79, his playing partner, unbowed by four bogeys, shot a three-under 69. When Mike Taylor asked his student what he gleaned from the experience, the answer was simple but insightful. "Nothing bothers Kuchar," English said.

Not much appears to bother English, either. His golf idol is in fact Love, and English shares the Hall of Famer's tranquil demeanor. English credits his upbringing, but it might be something in the air. Shortly after college, he moved to Love's hometown of Sea Island, where top golfers are as common as cormorants. For English, the relaxed vibe of the region, with its indifference to celebrity, is a selling point.

"I like the fact that people may know who you are, but it's no different than being a doctor or a lawyer or anything else," he says. "I don't deserve special treatment. Davis drives around in his pickup like anyone else. You think I'm going to get treated any differently?"

When he isn't on the road, English plays small-sum money matches against his Sea Island peers. "Something else I've learned about Kuchar," he says. "He may be smiling, but he's competitive as hell. Nothing that guy wants more than to beat your ass."

"Harris is exactly the same way," says English's friend and agent, Jeremy Elliott. "If you play Ping-Pong with him, you almost don't want to beat him. You worry about how hard he's going to take it."

English figures he's come out on the short end against Kuchar, Snedeker and Zach Johnson. Whatever his losses, he had enough left over late last year to buy a two-story, palm-shaded stucco house that represents an upgrade from his former shared apartment. Its bare-bones decor includes a white leather couch and lounge chair, arranged around a TV in a sort of makeshift den, where English sat one recent morning, SportsCenter flashing silently on the screen. The soundtrack came from English's iPod. An avid and omnivorous music fan, he takes in live shows whenever he can, on big stages in big cities and in tiny venues close to home. Rock. Country. Hip-hop.

"I'm happy with almost anything," he says, "even if it's just open-mic night." As the strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd filled the room, SportsCenter started its Top 10 countdown. English wasn't on it, but he has enjoyed the surreal experience of seeing himself on his own flat screen. It happened last summer, when he caught a highlight of his clinching putt at the St. Jude Classic, where he birdied two of the last three holes to hold off Phil Mickelson and Scott Stallings by two strokes for his first Tour win. "It was a short putt, but I remember that when I hit it I couldn't feel my hands," English says. "Then I saw it on TV, and it was good to know that it actually looked pretty normal."

Normal. Unexceptional. Bereft of autograph requests. That's where English stands on the verge of his first Masters, a tournament, he says, that will call for him to stay in the moment and to know precisely where to hit it — and even more, where not to miss. Predictions? He won't go there. All he'll allow is that if he fares well at Augusta, there will be less flying under the radar and more signing of souvenirs.

"The truth is," he says, "I'd be okay with that, too."