García and Barry Burn fail to halt Pádraig
In an extract from his new book The Irish Majors, PHILIP REIDrelives the day when Pádraig Harrington became the first Irishman to win a Major in modern times – at Carnoustie in 2007
BY THE time Harrington got down to the breakfast table, his caddie Ronan Flood had already departed for the links to scout the final day’s placements. Flood, a good amateur, had worked as a bank official with AIB before leaving his desk behind to travel the world and the fairways with Harrington. It was to be a beneficial move for both player and bagman.
As he sat down to his breakfast, Harrington wondered why Jonny Smith, a family friend, was sitting at the table with a half-dozen golf balls. He knew Flood had already packed the customary dozen balls in his golf bag. Then it dawned on him: the balls were for a possible play-off. Flood had phoned back to Smith asking him to get another six balls in case they were required.
Flood’s gesture of faith was appreciated by Harrington. It reminded him that Nick Faldo had come from six shots behind to beat Greg Norman in the 1996 US Masters, and that Paul Lawrie had come from 10 behind in the 1999 Open at Carnoustie. As Harrington tucked into his scrambled eggs and toast, he knew – as any big-time golfer knew – that, despite trailing Sergio García by six shots, the game was still alive. After all, only one other player, Steve Stricker, separated the group in tied-third from the 54-hole leader.
Someone could emerge from the pack. Why not him?
Before heading to the course, Harrington conducted a warm-up routine of stretching. The rented house was just five minutes from the links and Harrington timed his arrival – 12.15pm – so that he could get a rub-down from his therapist Dale Richardson, an Aussie who had built up his own small pool of players on tour. After almost 20 minutes of standard physiotherapy, and no recurrence of the neck spasm that had woken him in the early hours of the morning, Harrington headed to the range. It was 12.40pm, plenty of time to stop on his way to sign autographs.
On the range Harrington hooked up with Flood and his coach Bob Torrance, who was like his shadow. He didn’t worry too much about how he was hitting the ball, more about getting his head right. He felt good. He spent about half an hour on the range before he made his way to the short game area where he stuck to his routine and hit some bunker shots and some chip shots.
The next port of call was the putting green. All week, Harrington had spent no more than 10 minutes on the practice putting green before a round. It was an indication of how well he felt, how comfortable he was with the blade. He arrived on the green with 12 minutes to spare before his tee time, spent seven minutes hitting putts and then made his way to the first tee.
The central characters were to be Harrington and García, although the young Argentine Andrés Romero also played a leading role. In golf there is nothing like the pressure experienced by a player in the final round of a Major.
When García birdied the third hole to extend his lead to four shots, the smile on his face told its own story. It wasn’t long afterwards, though, that the Spaniard discovered it wouldn’t be all plain sailing.
Far from it. On the fifth hole, García’s tee shot came to a stop in an awkward lie on the edge of a bunker and he could only play back to the fairway. He ran up the first of three bogeys in a four-hole stretch. Suddenly, it was all to play for.
The surprise gatecrasher proved to be Romero, who conjured up a remarkable 10 birdies. Unfortunately for him, he also suffered two double-bogeys. The first of those came when his approach to the 12th green finished in a bush. Such a fate would have knocked the stuffing out of many a player. Not Romero. His response, quite incredibly, was to birdie the next four holes.
Then disaster struck on the par 4 17th, where he got greedy with his second shot out of the rough. His two-iron shot was shanked into the wall of the Barry Burn and then, almost by a force of nature, ricocheted across the 18th fairway and past the out-of-bounds stakes. It led to a double-bogey six. He also bogeyed the 18th to sign for a 67, which left him on 278. It was the mark to beat.
Pádraig Harrington doesn’t look at leaderboards. That’s his caddie’s job. He went into the final round with a game plan to chase birdies and covered the front nine in 33 strokes – claiming birdies at the third, sixth and eighth holes – to García’s 38. As Harrington stood on the 11th tee, he was just one stroke behind García. When he birdied that hole, hitting an eight-iron to three feet, the overnight deficit of six shots had been erased. The chase was over and he was playing for a different, grander prize, the one he had dreamed about.
Going out for the final round, Harrington and Flood had made a pact. There would be no looking at leaderboards, no updates to Harrington about who was doing what. They agreed that the first strategic decision would come on the par 5 14th: if Harrington needed birdies, Flood would hand him a driver; if he was in the thick of things, he would be given a five-wood.
Perhaps he already knew by the crowd’s reaction to his birdie on the 11th that he was, indeed, in the thick of things. Flood passing the five-wood on the 14th tee confirmed it. A par 5 of 514 yards, it was a risk-and-reward hole and there was a feeling he was due a turn of fortune. On the 12th his birdie putt had lipped out. On the 13th another birdie putt stopped on the edge of the hole and stubbornly refused to drop.
On the 14th, his tee shot gave him the chance to go for the green in two. He did and, finally, he got a lucky bounce. In links golf there is a degree of luck. A good shot can kick into the rough after hitting the fairway. Bad luck. A slightly off-line shot can kick back into the fairway. Good luck. Harrington’s approach landed in greenside rough but bounced and trickled on to the putting surface to 15 feet. He sank the eagle putt.
“Nothing had happened during the round to suggest it was my day until then. That was a big break,” he conceded.
Two matches behind, and listening to the roars from in front, García reacted by claiming back-to-back birdies on the 13th and 14th. They were both on nine-under. And when García’s conservative play on the 15th hole backfired and resulted in a bogey, it meant that Harrington – who followed his eagle with a run of three pars – walked to the 18th tee box with a one-stroke lead.
What happened next was grotesque, unforgettable and yet riveting (for observers, if not for Harrington). He stood on the tee with a driver in his hand – one with an 8.5° loft that had been put into the bag on Saturday – and let fly with what he believed would be his last drive of the day. It was one of those moments in time that seemed to elapse in slow motion. The ball was pushed right, towards the burn that snaked its way up between the 18th and 17th holes, and ran across a pedestrian bridge before falling into the water hazard.
On his way to retrieve his ball, Harrington and García passed each other headed in opposite directions. ‘Hello,’ said García, smiling. Harrington simply nodded back. He couldn’t get any words out.
On this same hole in the 1999 Open, Frenchman Jean van de Velde had run up a triple-bogey in losing his grip on the Claret Jug. He eventually lost out in a play-off to Paul Lawrie. And as Harrington took a penalty drop and chose to hit a five-iron for his third shot, with 207 yards to the front of the green and 229 yards to the flag, there was a look of sheer terror on his face after he caught it heavy and watched as the ball hit the ground and ran on into the burn.
“I was trying to get about 10 yards on the green. I was aiming at the out-of-bounds on the left in a right-to-left wind and trying to cut it in there. It was a difficult shot to take on and I hit a poor shot. I didn’t execute it well. I hit it fat.”
It was a measure of Harrington’s fortitude that he composed himself and, after taking his second penalty drop in the space of five minutes, hit a beautifully judged pitch shot that stopped five feet past the hole. “The putt was the most pressure-filled I had all day.”
He rolled it in, and barely had time to think before his son Paddy was jumping into his arms. He didn’t have time to think of what might have been.
That double-bogey six handed the initiative back to García. In the week where Ballesteros had formally announced his retirement from championship golf, it seemed as if the stars and planets were aligning to herald the young matador as the next champion.
García was one shot up standing on the 18th tee, but chose a conservative play to take the out-of-bounds down the left and the burn to the right out of play.
He left himself with 250 yards to the green, found a greenside bunker and then splashed out to 12 feet. He had a putt to win the Open. And, from the moment he hit it, it seemed perfect for pace and line. But it wasn’t. It somehow missed. He was tied with Harrington after 72 holes. The Irishman had finished with a 67 for 277, seven-under; the Spaniard with a 73 for 277.
Once he had signed his card, Harrington turned to the television and watched as García came up the 18th fairway. He watched as García played his bunker shot from a greenside trap. He watched as García pulled his belly-putter into his midriff and stroked the ball towards the hole. He watched as it refused to drop.
In that moment his mood changed. He put his game face back on. As one, Harrington and Flood got up and left to spend a few moments on the putting green where the time spent was as much about talking with Rotella as the need to hole putts. After all, Harrington’s 67 to García’s 73 in the final round reaffirmed his belief – despite the shenanigans on the last hole – that he, not his rival, had played the best golf. But the play-off, with aggregate scores over four holes, was a fresh start. They were starting from scratch.
The first hole, a par 4 of 406 yards, is known to this day as Cup. As Tiger Woods had discovered in his second round when hooking an iron into the burn, it could be tougher than it looked. In winning the Claret Jug in ’53, Ben Hogan hit a two-iron approach. Technology had progressed hugely and, when Harrington’s five-wood landed in the middle of the fairway, he was left with nothing more than a seven-iron for his approach.
García hit first and found a semi-plugged lie in a greenside bunker. Harrington’s approach shaped his destiny: it finished 10 feet from the pin and, importantly, was on the same line as the one he’d missed for birdie when he’d started out some five hours earlier. This time there was no mistake. He rolled in the birdie, and García missed his par save. A birdie to a bogey, Harrington had grabbed the initiative from the get-go.
The next hole was the par 3 16th, known as Barry Burn. Harrington missed the green with his rescue club and finished in a swale. García’s body language after his tee shot hit the flagstick and spun away to 18 feet told the story of a man who believed the golfing gods were against him. Harrington got up and down for his par, and García two-putted for his. The two-shot advantage remained with Harrington.
Pars from each of them on the 17th meant Harrington returned to the scene of the crime – the 18th tee – with a two-shot lead. It wasn’t a time for heroics. In his mind, he decided to play it as a par 5. He found the fairway off the tee with his favoured utility club, laid up short of the burn, and from there hit his approach to 30 feet. Two putts later, for bogey, and Harrington raised his putter to the skies as the Champion Golfer of 2007.
The Irish Majors by Philip Reid is published by Gill Macmillan and will be in shops this Friday, priced at €16.99.