Brian Viner: Irishman's incredible double created from spirit and nerve
Once a man has one major under his belt, he knows he can add another
Published 21/07/2008 | 09:29
The Claret Jug can now be filled with Guinness, or ladybirds, or whatever the Harrington family wants. Actually, it probably will not be Guinness because Padraig Harrington is a teetotaller.
Whatever, when the 36-year-old Dubliner won the Open at Carnoustie last July, and his little son Patrick scampered onto the 18th green and asked if he could fill the famous old trophy with ladybirds, it was fully 60 years since an Irishman had last won golf's most venerable championship.
Now the Emerald Isle can boast one of only five men in the past 50 years to have mounted a successful defence of the title, and the only non-American, as Harrington joins Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods. It is an exceedingly illustrious list, and one of its quirks is that Royal Birkdale features in four out of five of those back-to-back victories.
This marvellous course on what used to be the Lancashire coast, until the 1974 boundary changes impolitely deemed it Merseyside, posed a formidable challenge again yesterday, although for the first time in four days the stiff wind off the Irish Sea brought scarcely any rain with it, and by the afternoon the people from Southport Tourist Board must have been singing hosannas. At long last the sun had come out, with his hat on. Hip, hip, hip hooray!
Hats have loomed large in many of the nine Opens at Royal Birkdale. There was Mr Lu's famous pork-pie number in 1971, and the flat cap 12 years later of Watson's faithful Southport caddie, Alfie Fyles, which according to local rumour could only be removed by surgery. To this list of celebrated Birkdale headgear can now be added Harrington's blue peaked cap, which he doffed on receiving an ovation on the first tee and removed once more as he received the thunderous plaudits of the crowd while making his distinctive splay-footed walk up the 18th fairway.
The other benefit of his cap is that it covers his oddly uncool hairstyle, indeed the general contrast with his playing partner Greg Norman was inescapable yesterday. Even at 53, Norman still looks like a golfer as the Greek gods might have fashioned one, and the flowing locks still have plenty of flaxen in them, along with the distinguished grey. He strides the fairways with the demeanour of a guy who might equally be helicoptering tourists over the Great Barrier Reef, whereas Harrington looks like the accountant he would have become had he not possessed a rare talent to play golf.
Despite the slightly nerdish air, however, it was the Irishman who started nervelessly – not for nothing is he a distant relative of the former world poker champion Dan Harrington – and the Australian who had an unfortunate dose of the collywobbles.
While Norman started with three successive bogeys, Harrington made a solid string of pars and by the time he arrived with his rolling gait on the fourth tee, he led the Open on his own for the first time since another extraordinarily dramatic afternoon 12 months ago. Who needs Tiger Woods to turn major championship golf into a fantastic spectacle?
The world No 1 had very little to do with the drama last year, and although there were plenty who felt that this championship would be thoroughly devalued by his absence, for the last two days of the 137th Open there was hardly a mention of Tiger here – thanks mainly to the remarkable resurfacing of the Great White Shark, but also to Harrington's magnificently spirited defence of his title. A defence that on Wednesday looked like it might not happen at all, after he suffered a wrist injury while practising his swing against an impact bag. Harry Vardon never had such problems.
It was also a defence that faltered on occasion yesterday. After a fine par four on the monstrously difficult sixth, Harrington finished the front nine just as Norman had started it, with three successive bogeys. His cack-handed putting stroke, usually so assured, let him down badly and he was in urgent need of a four at the dog-leg 10th to steady the ship. It was duly steadied, thanks to a wonderful second after an errant tee-shot, yet one could not help wondering whether he might have slipped out of contention altogether had it not been for the self-belief born of his win at Carnoustie.
However, once a man has one major championship under his belt, he knows he can add another. Harrington pressed on, banished the bogeys from his mind, and a superb five-iron to the 13th set up a birdie to regain sole grip on the lead he had briefly shared with Ian Poulter, playing his carefully-coordinated socks off up ahead. Another birdie at the long 15th extended the defending champion's lead to two shots.
As hardly anyone knows better than Harrington, however, two-shot leads can disappear in a puff of wind. And there was still a good deal more than a puff to contend with. By the time he arrived at the 16th, the last hole into the teeth of the elements, Poulter was safely in the clubhouse having posted a challenging total of 287, seven-over-par.
Stevenage's most flamboyant son has received plenty of ribbing in recent months for his contention in a magazine interview that, once he reaches his potential, it will just be him and Tiger at the summit of world golf. In fairness, he nearly put his performance where his mouth was here, but it was the more modest Harrington who came home in 32 shots and matched Tiger's achievement of winning back-to-back Opens, an outcome he put beyond all doubt with an eagle at the par-five 17th that followed the shot of this championship, indeed one of the finest shots of any championship, a five-wood of 250 yards to three feet that left him punching the air. He knew it was all over, bar the shouting, and that he would have to fill the Claret Jug with wee beasties again. Apparently Patrick prefers snails now.