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Padraig Harrington is in no doubt he's still an Open contender nine years on from Birkdale heroics

 

By Liam Kelly

Monday of Open week. Royal Birkdale bathes in bright sunshine, it's T-shirt, summer weather, there's a healthy breeze blowing, and all is well with the world.

Players are out on the links, familiarising themselves with the broad outlines of the course which has not hosted the Open for nine years.

The putting green is in use, most of the early-bird fans who fancy a day out at the famed golfing venue are busy searching for the big-name players, trying to find out if they're playing a practice round.

Others are checking out the merchandise in the huge official outlet at the heart of the main spectator village.

First impressions? The good news is that from a fan's point of view pretty much all of the key areas are located within relatively easy reach - the village, the first tee, the ninth green, the 10th tee, the 18th green and, not too far away, the practice range, which also has a slightly smaller spectator village.

It could get very tight around the clubhouse and the village environs when the numbers grow by the thousands, increasing each day until the action gets under way on Thursday and continuing up to the always dramatic finale on Sunday.

But that's the job of the R&A. They've been doing this for a long time - 145 previous Open Championships since 1860 in fact, nine of them at Royal Birkdale in the golfing Mecca that is Southport.

It's fair to say that the ruling body of golf on this side of the Atlantic knows a thing or two about staging the oldest, and arguably the best, Major championship.

Hillside GC, which adjoins Birkdale, has given over part of its property to cater for much-needed car parking, not always to the delight of 'ordinary' golfers trying to get in a few holes, Open or no Open.

Our route to the media car park caused an interruption to two guys who were using the practice nets to warm up before their game.

They had to stop their pre-golf preparations and let us go by, and did not seem overly impressed. And fair enough. Their golf mattered more on an Open week Monday than anything else. Once the world's golfing elite get going on Thursday, it's a different story.

When we talk of a story, there was the 2016 champion Henrik Stenson striding out onto the first tee for the ceremonial handing over of the Claret Jug to R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers.

Stenson's epic victory at the age of 40 at Royal Troon last year, and the manner of his triumph over a courageous Phil Mickelson, was, and will be forever, the stuff of legend.

But did that matter yesterday to the man who manoeuvred his grandson to a barrier, first to view Stenson with the Claret Jug, and then to the back of the stand to see the car that Stenson arrived in - a space age, sleek Mercedes Benz F-015?

Probably the verdict went 70-30 in favour of the breathtaking car.

Another story that will forever be told is Padraig Harrington's 2008 win.

Once again, for the thousandth time, it seems, in a few months, Harrington was asked about that 5-wood, 5-wood, one-putt eagle at the 17th at Birkdale that gave him a four-shot lead coming down the last hole to a hero's welcome.

If he gets a tad bored with the repetition of that tale, Harrington does a good job of hiding it.

"Obviously I had won at Carnoustie, and Carnoustie was very exciting, but I kind of messed up the 72nd hole in Carnoustie. So it left a little something wanting," he said.

"It was nice to come back here. I think I won from the wrong side of the draw; I was in the last group on Sunday.

"I played great, I swung the club great. I hit a great shot on the 71st hole. I did everything you dream about doing as a kid to win a Major.

"And it was a very satisfying feeling to get my second Major here, my second Open Championship. So I have great memories."

The key for Harrington this week is getting off the memory trail and doing all he can to create some new ones.

A few weeks shy of his 46th birthday, he comes into Birkdale off the back of a 66 in the Scottish Open last Sunday, finishing tied fourth.

Age need be no barrier to another Claret Jug win. Greg Norman was 53 in 2008 when he led the Open after three rounds, only to fall to Harrington's sublime golf.

Tom Watson could have, and arguably should have, won at the age of 59 in 2009, but a play-off was a bridge too far for him to cross, and Stewart Cink got the verdict.

This week is a big opportunity for Harrington, certainly in his own eyes. Thus he bristled, ever so slightly, at the question as to whether he can be a credible contender this week.

"Look, I'm amazed you have to ask that question of me," added the Dubliner.

"I will always go back to the Shane Lowry quote - I think I'm going to win the week I'm not playing.

"So clearly I think that I'm a credible contender on any golf course, but bring me to a links golf course and there's no doubt about it, it gives me an advantage to be on a links course, for sure."

You never know, there may be another big chapter in the Harrington story to be written this week.

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