The Best Of Times: Harrington stares down Garcia in epic Claret Jug battle at Carnoustie
A perfect build-up to the 136th British Open unfolded into a brilliant mano-a-mano showdown
Pádraig Harrington follows the line of a shot during the British Open at Carnoustie in 2007. Photograph: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
On a July Sunday in 2007, a strange thing happened, as if the gods decreed all Irish sporting eyes would be on only one thing that day. In a strange quirk of the GAA’s fixture list at the height of summer, there were no championship matches whatsoever, no hurling, no football, and Pádraig Harrington had the stage to himself. All he had to do was to perform, as the drama of the 136th British Open unfolded at Carnoustie in Scotland.
Typical of the best kind of thriller, there would be a hero and a villain. The hero would prove to be the one with scary eyes, a look – unbeknown to the player himself – which would encapsulate that moment of supreme focus as Harrington weighted up his options and prepared to pull the trigger on whatever shot was required at a given moment in time.
The task facing Harrington was immense, given that he woke up that Sunday morning six strokes behind 54-hole leader Sergio Garcia. Even the bookmakers considered him a long shot, with odds of 20-1 generally available. And nobody needed to remind Harrington that the weight of history was against him: the one and only Irish player to win the Claret Jug was Fred Daly in 1947, all of 60 years previously.
And yet Harrington’s self-belief was not that of any underdog. In May he’d ended another kind of drought when capturing the Irish Open at Adare Manor – the first home winner since John O’Leary in 1982 – and only the previous week he had won the Irish PGA Championship the hard way at the European Club near Brittas Bay in Wicklow, beating Brendan McGovern in a playoff.
The significance of that Irish PGA win was far more than the €12,500 winner’s prize. In the final round, Harrington discovered he had the ability to turn on his best when required. One incident stood out. Two shots down to McGovern with six holes to play, he couldn’t help but overhear a conversation among two spectators following the play. “It’s really being put up to him, we’ll see what he’s made of now,” said one to the other. Harrington turned and smiled at them, birdied the next three holes, and would defeat McGovern in the playoff before heading on to a friend’s wedding.
“I walked into the Open feeling like I had prepared. It wasn’t just the physical aspect of playing a week’s golf on a links course. I felt I had outsmarted everybody else in the field. The European Club was a great warm-up in that way, tight off the tee, and it’s not as though you can pull out the driver and just hit it. I felt I was one up on the field [going to Carnoustie],” Harrington recalled.
Still, the British Open was an entirely different matter and it was also a time when European players it seemed couldn’t win any Major championship for love nor money. Paul Lawrie at the 1999 British Open, funnily enough also at Carnoustie, had been the last European player to win a Major title; and, at the start of the week, one where Seve Ballesteros officially retired from tournament golf, six-time Major champion Nick Faldo had observed of the current crop of European players as being “too chummy”.
Faldo made the point: “It’s very different from our era to this era. We were competitors and we were very separate individuals. I always believed you kept your cards close to your chest. Now, the modern guys all have lunch together and then go off to play for a million dollars. And I think, ‘Hmm, I can’t imagine sitting down with Seve or Greg [Norman] or Pricey [Nick Price] before we go out’. It all seems very different now.”
The insinuation, it seemed, was that the European players were a tad too soft. Harrington was asked about Faldo’s remarks. He replied, “Just because you’re a nice guy, it doesn’t mean you can’t win a Major. You have to have an instinct to win, but nice guys do win.”
Carnoustie’s reputation as the toughest links on the British Open rota was well-merited. During the 1999 championship, the British tabloids had named it “Car-Nasty” and, some eight years later, photographic evidence on the corridor wall outside the locker-room couldn’t be avoided. One photograph showed the scoreboard of one group which had completed the second round, which read: “SINGH +19, MEDIATE +13, GARCIA +30”. It provided a graphic reminder of potential carnage.
In 1999, Garcia had literally cried in the locker-room after being destroyed by the links. Eight years on, he was full of confidence and for the first three rounds nobody played better than the Spaniard. Through 54-holes, Garcia held a three-stroke lead over American Steve Stricker and was six shots clear of a group of seven players, which included Paul McGinley . . . and Harrington!
Harrington’s favourite book at that time was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which essentially is a fable about following your dreams towards personal contentment and riches. On a day of drama, of twists and turns and yet more twists and turns, it all came down to a duel between two men – one an Irishman, the son of a Garda, the other a Spaniard, the son of a golfer – in a battle of battles for the great prize and each intent on claiming their destiny.
One moment, it was in Harrington’s hands. The next, it was not. Standing on the 18th tee complex of that final round, the 72nd of the championship, Harrington had forged to the top of the leaderboard and held a one-stroke lead over Garcia. But his tee-shot on the finishing hole was a poor one, and the ball was pushed right and finished in the hazard known as Barry Burn. Harrington and his caddie Ronan Flood reached the hazard just as Garcia came down the 17th. The Spaniard, crossing the footbridge, grinned, and said: “Hello”. Harrington had no words of reply.
As Garcia got an extra pep to his steps as he strode away, Harrington’s thoughts were his own. With a 207-yard approach shot to the green, Harrington’s efforts to reach the putting surface failed and instead he again found the meandering burn. It was on this hole in 1999 that the Frenchman Jean van de Velde had suffered calamity and a similar storyline was unfolding. “It crossed my mind he had made seven to lose the Open and I was slipping down that slippery slope.” Harrington took a drop and, faced with a 47-yard pitch, managed to get up-and-down for a double-bogey six.
He wasn’t allowed time to contemplate the situation, as his wife Caroline wisely allowed their young son Paddy race up to him as he left the green. In the score recorder’s hut, Harrington got the sound turned down on the television and watched as Garcia played the last. “I never let it cross my mind that I’d just thrown away the Open. I was as disciplined and focused as I could be not to brood, no ifs or buts.”
As it happened, the door was reopened. Harrington’s final round 67 saw him finish on seven-under-par 277 and Garcia, who needed a par to win, pulled his three-iron approach to the green into a bunker. Garcia splashed out to 10 feet, and then watched as the ball looked set to drop into the tin cup only to stay above ground. A bogey. A 73. A playoff.
Harrington was up and out of the recorder’s hut and refocused. Destiny was back in his own hands, a mano-a-mano golfing combat over four holes – the 1st, 16th, 17th and 18th – to decide the winner. There would be only one. And Harrington threw down the gauntlet from the off, hitting a seven-iron approach to 10 feet for a birdie to Garcia’s bogey, after the Spaniard found a semi-plugged lie in a greenside bunker.
On the par-three 16th, Harrington missed the green left. What happened next? Well, didn’t Garcia only go and hit the flagstick with his tee-shot, but then watched in horror as the ball ricocheted off it and settled 18 feet away. Harrington’s short-game wizardry was on show, as he made a great up-and-down for par. Garcia missed his birdie putt. Harrington remained two-up.
On they went, both parring the 17th. Then, it was back down the 18th, a hole which had almost destroyed Harrington. He had double-bogeyed it in Friday’s second round, and again just an hour earlier in regulation. On this occasion, with a two-shot lead, Harrington’s driver stayed in the bag. Instead, he kept the ball in play with his favoured utility club, laid up short of the burn with his approach, and then hit his third shot to 30 feet and two-putted for a winning bogey.
Two days after promising his son Paddy that he could indeed put ladybirds in the Claret Jug, Harrington was feted by taoiseach Bertie Ahern at Leinster House. “Having my family there and seeing my aunts swooning over Bertie was one of the highlights [of the homecoming],” he recalled.
The drama of Carnoustie was a thriller, but one which proved emotional. “I can’t believe how many men cried on Sunday, the number who came up to me and said they shed a tear is phenomenal,” said Harrington of the effect of his victory.