Thoughts on Valhalla and the 19th in the sky

 

AMERICA AT LARGE:Pádraig Harrington's win triggered widespread rejoicing and was manna for historians; it also solved certain Ryder Cup conundrums and created a few others, writes George Kimball.

THE CHAMPION golfer for 2008 had just spent half an hour sharing his reflections with the press last Sunday evening, and, with the Claret Jug planted on the dais in front of him, he hung around the media centre a bit longer still to chat more informally with a few of us.

When I mentioned that in repeating as Open champion he had joined a very select group, Pádraig Harrington, still dizzy from the events of the previous few hours, wasn't sure off the top of his head who the other names might be. He could, of course, have satisfied his curiosity by consulting the engraved artefact that sat before him, but instead he asked me.

"Well," I told him, "in the last 50 years there's Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and yourself."

A smile formed on Harrington's lips. "That," he said, "is pretty good company."

What is nearly as instructive would be a roster of the Open champions of the same era who did not repeat: Jack Nicklaus never retained an Open title. Nor did Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros or Gary Player.

In my notebook for a US newspaper written that same night I noted that "they might not have been quite as elated as the back-to-back champion, but Nick Faldo, Pat Ruddy, and Old Tom Morris were also beneficiaries of the Irishman's win at Birkdale."

Faldo, because Harrington's result had secured him an automatic place on the European Ryder Cup team, relieving the European captain of the need to burn one of his wild-card selections to put Harrington in the squad he will take to Valhalla in Louisville two months hence.

Ruddy, because Harrington's victory validated the European Club impresario's inspired decision to turn his Wicklow links over to the Irish PGA in order to ensure its contestants - and Harrington in particular - would have optimal preparation for the Open.

The week preceding the Open, remember, is prime season for visiting golfers on their way to the UK, and in closing the links to well-heeled outsiders, Ruddy probably cost himself close to €100,000 in potential revenues.

The scheduling of the European Club tournament provided an Irish-specific alternative to a function that had in bygone years been fulfilled by the Scottish Open. (In his final year as an amateur, for instance, Tiger Woods had travelled to play the Scottish at Carnoustie before moving to Lytham.)

One can't exactly fault the European Tour for following the money trail in awarding the Scottish Open to Loch Lomond. (The Tom Weiskopf design there is a wonderful golf course, but in terms of preparation for the British Open it might as well be in Iowa.)

And somewhere up on the big 19th green in the sky, Thomas Mitchell Morris snr had to be smiling, because in snuffing out Greg Norman's challenge on Sunday, Harrington probably ensured Old Tom would remain for another 141 years the oldest man to have won the Open.

While Faldo is doubtless grateful to Harrington for somewhat easing the burden posed by the captain's picks, he has to be hoping others will step forward over the next six weeks to clarify what remains a troubled picture.

Despite their energised play in the Birkdale Open, neither Ian Poulter nor his English compatriot Paul Casey would be an automatic selection right now. If the team were picked right now, in fact, Oliver Wilson and Martin Kaymer would be in, while Poulter, Casey, Sergio Garcia and Colin Montgomerie would all be out.

Obviously, Faldo was hoping one of the European veterans would make a charge in the Open that might ease his burden, and while Casey did finish tied for seventh, Monty (76), Garcia (79) and Ross Fisher (76) all faded badly on Sunday.

Monty had hoped to play his way onto the team but, despite a promising start, his weekend at Birkdale didn't do much for his Louisville candidacy. (On Monday, Harrington suggested Faldo could do worse than pick Monty as a wild-card if he can't play his way onto the team, but Faldo seems lukewarm to that idea and Montgomerie himself has said, "I wouldn't pick me.")

A European team without Garcia would be almost as unthinkable as leaving Harrington off had he not made his own case.

As Ryder Cup rookies, the two, in fact, played as partners at Brookline nine years ago. But if push comes to shove, would Faldo dare leave Poulter off to put Sergio on?

And while you're thinking about that, what if Luke Donald's wrist injury enjoys a Harrington-like cure?

With his insistence on a revamped format in which he will personally select one-third of his team, Faldo's American counterpart Paul Azinger has placed himself squarely in the crosshairs. The Americans haven't done very well with Woods, and our prospects are even bleaker in his absence.

Steve Stricker, who would have been a likely wild-card pick, probably won't have to be, since Woods's indisposition will move him up to eighth on the list of available candidates.

The fact remains that of the 12 men Tom Lehman took to The K Club two years ago, only three - Phil Mickelson, Jim Furyk, and Stewart Cink, a wild-card in 2006 - would automatically be on the team if the selections had to be made this week.

Nursing injuries this year, neither David Toms (back) nor Chris DiMarco (wrist) would be on the US team, which as constituted at present would bring an odd mix of Ryder Cup rookies (Anthony Kim and Boo Weekley) and veterans like 47-year-old Kenny Perry (a Kentucky native who skipped the festivities in Birkdale in order to stay home and ensure himself a spot on the team) and Justin Leonard, who, as some may recall, has played in the Ryder Cup before.

One more thought as we take leave of these islands: Harrington may have gotten Old Tom Morris off the hook, but now it's Young Tom's turn to be threatened.

Between 1868 and 1872, the younger Morris won four straight Opens - the only ones played in that interval. We wouldn't want to get ahead of ourselves by predicting that Harrington might equal that feat, but put it this way: right now, he's the only one who can.