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The Paddy Wagon Rolls On: Harrington Rides Hot Putter, Outduels Garcia, Curtis to win PGA
The trophy is bigger than him, but his heart is bigger than the trophy. Padraig Harrington, the 2008 PGA champion, looked like a Bulgarian weightlifter doing a "clean and jerk" as he thrust the squat, bulky Rodman Wanamaker Trophy awkwardly into the air with both hands. Nevertheless, as elated as he was after outdueling the star-crossed Sergio Garcia and gallant Ben Curtis, Harrington could probably have lifted his way to a medal in Beijing.
Harrington won his third career major with his putter. He ranked second in putting this week, averaging a measly 27 putts a round. Before the tournament started, Ian Poulter said, "Whoever putts best this week will win," and he was almost exactly right; Andres Romero took one less putt over four days. Over the 36 holes played Sunday - caused by a weather-caused cancellation of Round 3 on Saturday, Harrington went 25-26 in putts for his final two rounds of the tournament.
As much of Oakland Hills South Course's frightening reputation as "The Monster" is built upon its treacherous putting surfaces, greens that rival Oakmont and Winged Foot for difficulty, Harrington likely authored the greatest single putting effort Oakland Hills has seen by a major championship winner. Facing pressure putt after pressure putt, Harrington was the ultimate gamer in the clutch, consistently rolling them home in front of Garcia, who missed his own crucial chances late in the round.
Closing with a pair of 66s Sunday, Harrington brought The Monster to its knees better than Ben Hogan ever did. David felled Goliath with a slingshot, Dracula got a stake in the heart, Harrington slew the South Course with an Odyssey two-ball. Moreover, even Hogan never won the British Open and the PGA in the same year. With that, Harrington elevates himself into the company of Walter Hagen, Nick Price and Tiger Woods. Also, Harrington becomes the first European to win the PGA in 78 years (Tommy Armour was the last in 1930) and the only European ever to win back-to-back majors in the same year.
Harrington is a breakout star. After his second consecutive British Open win and a second straight major, he's not just potential anymore, he is a formidable adversary. The Irishman is unflappable, precise - of course he'd be precise, he's a Certified Public Accountant - and gritty. He wasn't intimidated by the stern challenges at Oakland Hills, whose greens are so elusive, well-protected and dangerous they resemble a large mousetrap with a big piece of cheese just waiting to entice before fatally ensnaring you.
But Harrington survived, indeed thrived in the crucible. He just looked at Oakland Hills with a glance of Amazonian fierceness, like a cat stalking a rat, and willed himself to overcome any challenge. His determination rivals Woods and Mickelson. On the only day where 36 holes were played to close the PGA, his 66 in the morning included four consecutive birdies on some of the toughest holes on any major championship course, Nos. 13-16. Then he did it again four-and-a-half hours later, shooting a second consecutive 32 on the back nine.
"I made an adjustment on the greens," he explained. "They were softer because of the rain, and I was able to charge putts a little more and I started holing them."
That's an understatement. Harrington closed with three one-putts. He curled in a 12-footer on 16 to save par, which surged him into a tie with Garcia. Then on 17, he holed a 10-footer for birdie. When Garcia missed his 5-foot try, Harrington had his first lead since the third hole of the first round. (He opened the tournament birdie-birdie-birdie, missing a hole-in-one on the par-3 third by microns. His 4-iron approach rolled into the center of the cup, but struck the pin and caromed off, leaving him a tap-in birdie.) Finally, Harrington holed a 12-footer for par on 18, getting up and down out of the rough from 145 yards away.
Garcia has no reason to hang his head. It took an alarming confluence of zany bad breaks to defeat him as well as the hottest putting streak of Harrington's life. Sergio hit his 6-iron approach on 15 directly into the cup only to have it pop back out again and roll 10 feet away. He missed the putt, causing a two-shot swing. Worse, Garcia hit another 6-iron over the water hazard on No. 16 only to see it ricochet off the bank back into the water. He grinded out a gutsy bogey, but the mistake allowed Harrington to draw even with him. "That's the opportunity I was looking for," Harrington said. "That was the opening of the door." Garcia then missed crucial putts on 17 and 18 to finish two strokes behind the champion.
An understandably testy Garcia did his best Phil-Mickelson-at-Winged-Foot imitation, keeping as brave a face as he could despite having to endure a second stunning defeat at the hands of Harrington in a major. After leading the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie after three rounds, Garcia collapsed, allowing Harrington to snatch the title after a playoff. "You know, when you give it your best, and the end result is not what you wish for, you know it's hard, but you feel good, you feel like you gave it your best," he explained bravely.
Garcia said he took away from the weekend, a lot of positive things. "To shoot 69-68 on the final two days of a major on a course like this, I think it's pretty positive."
The story of the tournament is not complete without Ben Curtis, a seemingly forgotten man in the Tiger-Phil buzz and the rise of Harrington as a golf powerhouse, but one who inspires the fans not just by dressing in the local football team's colors, but because he's gracious, gritty and affable. Although his body language belied little disappointment, he was still candid and introspective. "I've got a huge confidence boost heading into the playoffs. You're always on such an adrenaline rush out there, you try to take a deep breath and just try to enjoy the moment, because you never know how many opportunities you're going to get like this," he said, rallying a little and smiling. "Besides," he added, giving a nod to the fans that buoyed him all weekend as he wore the Honolulu Blue of the Detroit Lions, "I felt a lot of support. I definitely love to play in the Midwest."
Curtis also gave a nod to Harrington. "He's won three of the last six. That's Tiger-like." He's right. Harrington doesn't just putt well, he has the most complete game in golf right now, more complete than more recognizable stars like Mickelson and Garcia, superstars in their own right.
Everyone feared the majors would be boring without Tiger Woods, but first Greg Norman threw away his cane, walker and Ensure to nearly win the British Open on his honeymoon. Then Harrington, the man with ice water in his veins, fought another swashbuckler in Garcia and the most gracious and affable player on Tour in Curtis. Harrington shot 32 on the back nine in consecutive rounds on the side of Oakland Hills that's supposed to be the much harder.
So it'll be more John Smith's Smooth for Harrington as a celebratory beverage, but this time the container is much larger than the Claret Jug. The Wanamaker Trophy is 30 inches high, 27 inches from handle to handle and weighs 30 pounds. Then maybe he'll have some claret or some Bushmill's Black. But after that, he'll have an eye fixed firmly on the Masters.
Last year, Harrington increased and honed his practice regimen to win that venerable tournament. He's come close on several occasions but never gone into it having won the last two majors. With "The Striped One" eying a comeback at the same time, Major Championship Golf may finally have the long term mano-a-mano battle it has wanted for the last decade.
Slante, Padraig. Bloody well done, laddie.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.
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