Harrington enters new universe


GOLF/US PGA CHAMPIONSHIP:Who needs Tiger? Nobody does heart-stopping, rollercoaster drama like Pádraig Harrington and, almost defying belief, the 36-year-old Dubliner won the 90th US PGA championship at Oakland Hills last night with a final round 66 for 277, three under, that gave him back-to-back major championship titles and took him into a new universe among the sport's greatest golfing legends.

The golfing gods have a mischievous side, a sense of devilment and, yet again, Sergio Garcia was the fall guy as Harrington - just three weeks on from his second British Open win at Royal Birkdale and a year on since the Irishman and the Spaniard duelled at Carnoustie - claimed a third major.

Crazy, crazy days, to be sure! But, under the most severe pressure, Harrington conjured magical golf. A final round 66 to his third round 66 - which was finished yesterday morning, due to a thunderstorm on Saturday - enabled Harrington to take another step towards his golfing destiny, having started the final round three shots behind 54-hole leader Ben Curtis.

On the 72nd hole, Harrington made an incredible par four to ensure that the Wanamaker Trophy - one that has the most famous names in golf etched on it - would be his. Having driven into a fairway bunker, his sand shot then found heavy rough. With 143 yards to the flag, he hit a seven-iron approach to the elevated green and then sank a 15-footer for par that left the watching Garcia - who was to miss his subsequent par putt - shellshocked.

Harrington finished two shots clear of Garcia, who closed with a 68 for 279, and Ben Curtis who finished with a 71 to be on the same mark and kissed his wife Caroline, mother Breda and sons Ciaran and Paddy - and the trophy perched by greenside! The early charge in the final round was made by Garcia, a player desperate to rid himself of the tag 'best-player-never-to-have-won-a-major."

The Spaniard birdied the first and eagled the second (hitting a nine-iron approach to the par 5 to four feet) to move to three under and a great up-and-down from greenside rough on the ninth enabled him to assume the lead (on three-under) after Ben Curtis suffered back-to-back bogeys on the eighth and ninth holes to fall back to two-under.

On a cool day, with a swirling wind and occasional rain showers adding to the final round test, Curtis - the 2003 British Open champion at Royal St Georges - got an indication on the very first hole of how Oakland Hills could bite. Fortunately for him, it was as a spectator.

JB Holmes, the longest driver on the US Tour, took a triple-bogey seven there after driving into trees and unwisely attempting to chip back out onto the fairway only to leave his ball in a worse spot. He was forced to take a penalty drop, and that triple bogey was then followed by a run of bogey-bogey as his bid for a first major disintegrated. Curtis, though, stayed cool and calm, unfazed by his playing partner's woes.

Harrington, though, stayed focused - having suffered a bogey five on the fifth where his six-iron approach from 191 yards flew the green to result in a bogey - and showed his ability to grind out scores, getting up and down from a 50 yards bunker shot on the sixth for a birdie and, then, rolling in a 20-footer for birdie on the 10th that moved him to one-under and two strokes adrift of leader Garcia, who was four under on his round, at that juncture.

On the Sunday of a major, it is what happens on the back nine that counts. It is when the heart thumps a million times faster than a golfer ever experiences. It's when the muscles tighten. It's when the hard questions are asked. And it is where Harrington made his now traditional back nine, final round charge with birdies on the 10th (20 feet), 12th (five feet) and 13th (10 feet) moving him in to a share of the lead with Garcia.

You want drama in a major? How about the 16th hole, the signature hole here at Oakland Hills. Both Garcia and Harrington found the fairway. But the hard work had still to come, and Garcia's approach found the water that lurks to the right of the green. Then, Harrington's eight-iron approach was pulled into a bunker.

Garcia made a superb up-and-down from the drop zone, holing a five-footer for bogey, but Harrington - just as he had done with superlative bunker play on the sixth, seventh and ninth holes - got up and down from the bunker. This time, he had to hole a vicious right-to-left 15 footer for par. The pair walked to the 17th tee in a three-way share of the lead on two-under (along with Curtis, in the group behind) By the time they walked off the 17th green, Harrington had it all by himself. A five-iron tee-shot on the Par 3 - where Freddie Jacobson had earlier had a hole-in-one - to nine feet was finished off in style. Garcia, who was inside him, missed his birdie putt from four feet.

Graeme McDowell finished with a 73 for 287, seven over, that gave him 15th position. "I struggled on the greens a little bit again, but it's another major. More experience under the belt, and I'm slowly and surely learning how to get around these places."