Harrington wins it the right way in the end

 

Fate works in mysterious ways and, if the lucky finding by a spectator of his ball in tiger rough on the 18th hole ensured his survival in the contest, Padraig Harrington's class was ultimately his salvation as he defied the putting demons that had tormented him all day to win a four-way play-off in the Smurfit Irish PGA Championship at Powerscourt yesterday.

Just a month before he defends his World Cup of Golf title with Paul McGinley in New Zealand, the 27-year-old Dubliner got a big boost to his confidence when holing a 25-footer for birdie at the first extra hole, the 10th, an act that enabled him to grasp his first Irish professional title from under the noses of Des Smyth, Francis Howley and Michael Bannon.

"I would have had nightmares if I didn't win," confessed Harrington, expanding: "I had such a poor day on the greens that it was nice to actually win the championship with the longest putt I managed all week." Harrington, who picked up the top prize of £16,600, had entered the final day of the championship, which was curtailed to 54-holes due to inclement weather on Saturday, one shot clear of the field but, as others made inroads, he laboured to a closing 73 to eventually leave him in a four-way tie on level par 216.

Harrington's bid for glory almost came unstuck on the 18th, where he blocked his drive into thick rough and just 10 yards from the out-of-bounds fence. Four minutes into the search, with hundreds of helpers taking baby steps in an effort to discover it, a spectator stumbled upon his Maxfli 4 ball and picked it up to confirm it was Harrington's before replacing it so perfectly that it would have been possible to use a driver.

However, under a combination of Rules 18 and 20-3b, Harrington was obliged to replace the ball as closely as possible to its original state. "It went back sideways into the grass and was covered, and I could only move it 60 yards with a wedge," he explained. Harrington, who'd stood on that last tee-box at one-under and one clear of the other three players waiting at greenside, couldn't, however, salvage the required par and, a bogey five later, was forced to troop back to the 10th hole.

Earlier in the afternoon, Harrington had hit a wedge stone dead for a birdie at the same hole and he approached the tee-box again "knowing that I had to try to make birdie to win." Bannon, the only club professional in the fight-out, saw his approach plunge into a greenside bunker; Howley's approach came up short, and Harrington (25 feet) and Smyth (20 feet) found the green.

"I've been really struggling with the putter," recalled Harrington, "but I knew I had to make it. I expected Des to hole his." Harrington analysed every angle of the putt and, then, rolled it off the centre of the putter face and it never looked like going anywhere other than into the hole. Smyth, who had scored a best-of-the-championship 68 in the final round to get into the play-off, narrowly missed his birdie effort at the tie hole and remarked, sportingly: "It was won the right way, with a birdie."

Harrington, a former Irish amateur matchplay champion and amateur strokeplay champion, said: "I see this win as a natural progression in my career. The next step is to win an Irish Open, or a European Open, but that is probably the hardest one of all for an Irish player to win because of all the extra pressures of competing on home soil."

Certainly, yesterday's final round brought its own pressures for everyone involved in the drama. Smyth had a quite amazing start - five birdies and a bogey in the first six holes - and was one under par playing the last, but an overzealous approach left him over the green and he failed to get up and down.

Smyth reverted to an old putter - "A Wilson 8802 that I had in my amateur days and last used 15 years ago," he recalled - and abandoned the broom-handle putter for the championship and it very nearly worked miracles, although the par five 12th hole proved very costly. There, Smyth's three-wood approach was cut into the trees and he could only hack back out onto the fairway for a bogey, or "a bad six" as he later lamented.

Others had their chances, too. Bannon, defying the weight of history which in recent times has witnessed one tour player after another lift the title, had a 10 footer for birdie on the last which he rushed by the hole. And so it was that Harrington survived his missing ball scare to go on and claim his first Irish PGA title, just three years since turning professional.