by Andy Farrell, Golf International, Issue 84, Sept 2008.
Such honour in victory, such honour in defeat, who could ask for more from the 137th Open Championship? (And don't even bother mentioning you know who.) Would it have been a bigger "story" to the sporting, and wider, public if Greg Norman had won? Well, possibly, but that misses the point that in Padraig Harrington golf had its deserved winner, the first double champion from Europe for more than a century, since James Braid, and joining the likes of Woods, Watson, Trevino, Palmer, Thomson and Jones as back-to-back winners. A series of astonishing golf shots doen the stretch and the Irishman was the champion golfer for another year.
It was, after all, a masterpiece of golf all week at Royal Birkdale, fascinating from first shot to last. For the first time since being back at Southport 10 years ago, the weather played a strong, consistent hand throughout the championship and the entertainment was all the better for it. A spot of target practice at the Open, I think not. On display was the sight of the top golfers having to think, to adapt and to prove their courage.
No wonder Harrington and Norman emerged as the week's dominant characters. One is the finest bad-weather player of his generation and the other was of his, too. Remember Turnberry in 1986? Norman was doing this before some of his opponents were even born - well, almost. Cruel, really, that the 2008 Open will just be another statistic in Norman's list of blown chances in majors. This was the eighth time he had led a major after 54 holes and the only time he won was back 22 years ago.
But Norman's enduring gift to the game has always been the willingness to fail. To put himself into position, time after time, even at the age of 53. "A lot of people should take stock that no matter how old you arem if you really want to chase a dream, you can do it," he said. "Even though there's failure at the end of it, I still put myself in. I surprised a lot of people."
Only those who had forgotten a previous era when the game's greatest predator was a Shark and not a Tiger. Now times are different. As you may have read, earlier this year Norman married Chris Evert, the former tennis star. He plays more tennis than golf these days. "I have the most beautiful balance to my life," he said. A new bride, his family, his business, golf follows a long way down that list. "My mind still salivates about playing but my body will not let me practice."
Not in the way he used to. He is more likely to be on the range teaching his son Gregory than beating balls himself. "I really enjoy it for a couple of hours but I can't to the eight, ten hours that I used to. I don't grid out the practice, practice, practice." Which is fair enough but we know a man who does exactly that.
Harrington describes his main assets as "determination, fortitude, the strength to work through things and the ability to move forward". Fear used to plague him that it was all about to evaporate evernight but now he knows he and his coaches - Bob Torrance on the range, Bob Rotella in the mind - are building on firm foundations. Sometimes you feel he overdoes the analysis, as when his schedule became so inflexible this year that he missed big events like the WGC event at Doral and the BMW PGA at Wentworth.
But if the results were not quite up to scratch this year so far, the preparations were. Once again he won the Irish PGA at the European Club the week before the Open, infoul weather and, here was an omen, this time without a playoff. Extraodinary that after victory, late on the Saturday night, he was still practising, this time whacking a driver into a bean bag for impact training, a la Henry Cotton and his car tyres.
His right wrist gave out but even this injury turned out all right. It stopped him overdoing the practising prior to the Open and meant he had saved all his energy for when it mattered. There was a worrying point on Wednesday, when he only hit two shots on the course, but by that night he was convinced he could play and not do further damage. It took his mind off all the business of trying to defend his title but what he did not want was ot go in the rough early on Thursday.
He was never out of it, but that only proved to him that the wrist was OK. A 74 was not out of it on such a horrid opening day. The golfers were pronged by the three tips of the devil's staff - cold, wet and wind. A couple complained but most just got on with it. "This is the best set-up I've ever seen at the British Open," Norman said. Rocco Mediate, the joint leader on 69 with Graeme McDowell and Robert Allenby, added: "They built these courses so beautifully back then so you can still play in these sorts of conditions."
The draw hurt the early-late players, was the wisdom, but for thoses prepared to battle on - Ernie Els opened with an 80 but was the only man with Harrington to have two sub-par rounds; Ben Curtis started seven-six but was still in contention - it evened itself out. Exactly nine of the top-18 played early on Thursday, including three of the top-four: Harrington, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson.
Norman, with a second-round 70, led for much of a nostalgic Friday. There was some brilliant golf. Camilo Villegas birdied the last five holes for a 65. K.J. Choi,to pip Norman by one late on, and Scott Verplank, had 67s and there was a 68 from Harrington. After bogeying the 10th and the 11th, he was on the cusp. A nothing week beckoned, possibly even a missed cut. Or another run at the title, which resulted from his birdie-par-eagle-birdie finish.
Saturday and the winds were gusting up to 50 mph. Three tees were moved forward, at the 6th, 11th and 16th, and the 10th would go forward on Sunday. The pins were changed to flay spots, or where the slopes would counteract the wind. In thinking on their feet, the R&A still provided the players with a fair test, if a stern one, even if play was almost stopped on Saturday. Of the last 11 pairings in the third round, only two players beat 75, and they were the 72s of Norman and Harrington.
Both men simply knuckled down, the weather not giving them time to think about what they might be achieving. Norman played some sublime knock-down shots, feeling his way around the links on instincts of old. Harrington simply would not let the bogeys, or a double at the 12th, get him down. Back he came with birdies where he could find them.
They were in the final pairing on Sunday, Norman ahead by two. They threw bogeys at each other on the front nine, Norman giving up the lead, then Harrington handing it back. Harrington assessed the conditions and realised it was no good judging your performance by the result of your shots. "Good shots would have bad results," he said. "You couldn't get too results-orientated. The key was to accept that and commit to each shot. There was only one one, at the 7th, when I didn't do that."
He had said on Friday that all he was looking for was to be in a position on the back nine on Sunday to do something good. He did something wonderful, just as he would at the USPGA a few weeks later. Tiger might be the best front-runner in golf but the Irishman is becoming the game's best closer. Here the vital strike was a 5-iron to fifteen feet at the 13th for only the second birdie of the day at that hole. Up ahead Poulter was putting on a brave charge but he three-putted the 17th. He dug deep to hole a par putt at the last but it did not matter in the end. Still, it meant something to Poulter, though he was right not to rank his runner-up finish above any of his wins. He wears pastels, but there is granite inside.
Alongside Poulter, Chris Wood was having the round of his life. The 20-year-old amateur from Long Ashton took the silver medal and tied for fourth place with Jim Furyk. A week later he turned professional with Chubby Chandler's ISM, just as Rory McIlroy did last year. What fun to see these two prospects go on.
But Harrington was laying waste to all. At Carnoustie, he was humble enough to admit he messed up and there but for the grace of God, or a missed Sergio Garcia putt, would have been Van de Velded. But he was grown as Open Champion and did not want to give up the claret jusg, although it came back shinier after a week away from his breakfast table.
At the 17th he was two ahead of Poulter in the clubhouse and three of Norman. He had 249 yards ot the hole and hit a sublime 5-wood. It is not usual for Harrington to punch the air of his caddie, Ronan Flood, to say "good shot" before the ball has finished. By the time it had finished it was a brilliant shot. He rolled in the three-footer for eagle. "You can;t have a big enough lead up the last, as I proved last year."
A 3-wwod down the 18th fairway and he could enjoy it. A 5-iron over the flag was for show. He closed with a 69 and his 32 on the back nine was the best of the day. "He finished like a true Open champion," Norman said.
Perhaps we wanted Norman to win more than even he did. "I did wonder what would happen next," he said. He had two more weeks of his golfing holiday, at the Senior Open and the US Senior Open, but then he turned down an invitation to USPGA Championship. Like any other CEO, he had to go back to work.
"I thanked Greg for his company and told him I wished it was his story they would be telling that night," Harrington said of his 18th-hole conversation with the Shark. "He has been a great champion and it would have been a fantastic story. To drive a ball like that would be great at any age, let alone at 53."
Harrington and his caddie thoroughly enjoyed the 18th-hole reception. The first three years they worked together they never made to the weekend at the Open. Last year it was all a bit tense. This was a moment to be enjoyed and savoured. Soon the claret jug was back in his hands.
"I liked being Open champion so much I didn't want to give it up," he said. "There is a different satisfaction this year. Last year was a great high, it was a great thrill and it was exciting and unexpected and I was on top of the world when I won.
"This year is more satisfying. I feel more accomplished. It was the first time I was in the last group of a major on a Sunday. It's a different pressure, it's a different stress and to shoot under par and come through all that and win by a few shots will give me a lot more confidence.
"I never put last year down as an isolated event. I felt I was going to win another one but it's come round quicker than I thought. Never at any stage, or if I did for a second or two I stopped myself, did I think about what it would mean to win a second Open. Obviously winning a major puts you in a special club. Winning two of them puts you in a new club altogether."
Two Opens and now three majors after the Oakland Hills triumph. Never forget Norman but enjoy Harrington now."