Like a man slashing his way through jungle territory, Padraig Harrington produced one last swipe of the machete and suddenly found himself in a sun-drenched clearing, clutching the Harry Vardon Trophy.
He could hardly believe his luck and said as much when he barreled into the interview room at Valderrama after one of the most heart- stoppingly exciting finishes to the Volvo Masters and the Order of Merit race.
The record books will show that his share of second place with Luke Donald and Sergio García in the season-ending extravaganza on Spain’s Atlantic coast was enough to put him top of the Order of Merit for the first time in 2006 by the trifling sum of €35,253.
Talk about perfect timing and even the man himself had to admit that his final round performance was “vintage Harrington.”
Needing to finish second to earn enough cash to overhaul Paul Casey at the top of the money list, Harrington went into the final round four strokes adrift of the leader and eventual winner, Jeev Milkha Singh of India.
“Obviously I've got a difficult day ahead of me,” he said, after a third round 72 left him tied for 13th place on one over par. “Four behind is not the end of the world, but I've put a lot of people between me and the lead and you've got to think somebody is going to shoot a decent score.”
Then, almost prophetically, he added: “You need things to go right when you are trying to win a tournament and unfortunately for 36 of the 54 holes I haven't been making the most of my scores. I am hopeful that tomorrow I am building up all those putts for 18 holes of sublime golf.”
The gods must have listening to Harrington, who had twice finished second in the Order of Merit in 2001 and 2002 and racked up an incredible 29 second place finishes in a professional career he had initiated more in hope than expectation in 1996.
If his chances of becoming just the third Irishman to win the Vardon Trophy were tenuous going out, they were hanging by a proverbial thread when he bogeyed the first two holes in his final round.
But the Dubliner’s incredible tenacity allowed him to play the remaining holes in four under - the last eight holes of which were a throwback to the kind of golf that the affable Irish star produced as an outstanding amateur.
Not only did he make four birdies in that eight-hole stretch, he also single putted all eight greens, getting the ball up and down for par four times using the greatest weapon in his armoury - his willpower.
A 62-yard lob wedge from heavy rough to no more than four feet, followed by a solid putt was his last act in the event and allowed him to sign for a 69 and one-under total.
Just third in the tournament at that stage, he headed for the players’ lounge with his wife and son Patrick and watched on TV as Valderrama’s punishing closing holes conspired to present him with the Order of Merit.
When Sergio García bogeyed the 13th and 14th, Harrington was tied for second with three others. The Spaniard birdied the 16th to join Singh in the lead and leave Harrington tied for third with Luke Donald and Niclas Fasth. Not good.
When Singh birdied the 17th, it looked certain that Casey’s position as No 1 was guaranteed but out of the blue, and from the middle of the 18th fairway, García bogeyed to drop from outright second into a three-way tie for second with Harrington and Donald. The Order of Merit was Harrington’s at last and he could hardly believe his good fortune.
“I had a very strange week. I played 63 holes of great golf and had so many three putts and so many misses and all sort of things,” he said afterwards. “I did stay very calm, I never lost patience over those 63 holes.
“Then I came to the back nine and got a couple of bad breaks early on again but for some reason the last nine holes, it was vintage Harrington. I just willed the ball into the hole. I was just going to get it up-and-down and that was it.”
Mental strength was the difference in the end and while Casey was unlucky to be struck down by a tummy bug that prevented him from contending, Harrington used every weapon at his disposal to get the job done.
The 35-year-old Dubliner generously paid tribute to his caddie Ronan Flood afterwards, pointing out how his trusty sidekick had kept him upbeat and focussed when all looked lost after those early bogeys.
“My caddie just kept pushing me on to just keep concentrating and doing my thing and not to worry about the results, just to stay focussed on what I was doing.”
Harrington revealed that he made an important change shortly before the US Open at Winged Foot, where he blew his chances of winning his first major with three late bogeys.
After finishing fifth there, he said: “From then it was his (Flood's) job not just to keep things light on the golf course but also to remind me to do the things that I’ve been told to do by Bob Rotella (my psychologist).
“At the funniest times Ronan can say it’s time to just keep doing your thing and not worry about what anybody else is doing and just keep the head up and keep going.
“This is what Ronan has been reminding me of. On the first two holes I’ve made two bogeys off good irons shots. But it’s not what happens in one shot.
“It’s not about getting upset about things not going your way. It’s a long process and his job was to remind me just to keep going and keep playing.”
A prime example came at the par-17th, where Harrington splashed down in the pond but was urged by Flood to “get it up and down” for par and keep going.
Harrington did just that and then did it again at the 18th with that sublime lob wedge to four feet, arguably the shot of the year.
García’s late bogey was the finishing touch to a magical journey for Flood and Harrington that is sure to continue in 2007 with a concerted bid of that elusive major title.
But what’s more interesting is how Harrington managed to use his friendship to blow off steam this season when the results weren’t coming.
“When I wasn’t playing so well at the start of the year, I would come off the golf course churning up inside. I was burning up because I was shooting 72,” Harrington explained. “I had to change that attitude and around the time of the British Masters I decided I had to get away from it and not be beating myself up if the results don’t happen and just concentrate on the process.
“I could write a book on this sports psychology. Just concentrate on the processes and if you do that then you are comfortable with yourself at the end of the day.”
Film fan Harrington compared himself to Dobby the Elf in the movie “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” - a character who punished himself whenever he broke the house-elf code of loyalty on Harry's behalf by saying he had “to iron his hands.”
“If you are comfortable with yourself, you are not going home like Dobby in Harry Potter and going home to iron my hands,” he said with a grin. “That is what Ronan says to me every time: ‘C’mon we’ll get out the industrial iron and iron your hands if you feel that bad about yourself.’
“That’s part of it. You can’t beat yourself up with it when things are going badly and if I had had that attitude I would have never have won the Order of Merit. I would have never been in position that if things went right for me for the last five holes, that I would won the Order of Merit. I would have long blown myself out.
“I could have blown myself out after the first two holes where I got two terrible breaks, played two lovely iron shots the first two holes and I made two bogeys. So how was I feeling two over par when I had been two under par every other day after a few holes? You have to be very patient, do your thing and not feel as though you have to go home and iron your hands.”
The last quarter of the season must go down as one of the best ever for Harrington, who trailed Casey by €725,790 before winning the Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews.
True, he was beaten in a play-off for the BMW International in Munich shortly before the Ryder Cup and has had three second place finishes this term. But the big picture shows that he is learning that results don’t mean everything.
Reflecting on those near misses, he explained: “It would have been very easy to have lost patience but I could walk away from Munich saying I approached everything the way I wanted to, just as I did at the Dunhill when I ended up winning and I did this week though I finished up second.
“I hit all the shots how I wanted to hit them this week and never once lost my patience and I was in the right frame of mind and though it went against me at the BMW but I had to walk away with a smile on my face and today I am going to walk away with the same smile of my face.
“I am not going to make myself more confident based on results. I am going to make myself more confident based on the fact that I got the ball up and down and kept my focus at the right places.”
Just two Irishmen had won the Harry Vardon Trophy, awarded annually by the PGA to the leading player in the European Tour Order of Merit, with Christy O’Connor in 1961 and 1962, paving the way for Ronan Rafferty in 1989.
Now Harrington has joined an illustrious list that is studded with major winners in the shape of Henry Cotton, Bobby Locke, Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els.
“It's been a big goal of mine. It's been a big goal of mine over the years to win the Order of Merit,” Harrington said. “I've come a long way. You know what, as I said, when I started off years ago, I would be happy to be a journeyman pro. If I'm finishing 75th every year, I would have said I would be very successful and most people would have said that, too, who would have seen me turning pro.
“So to be leading the European Order of Merit after ten years and to have won it, I've just come ever so far. So it's a very proud moment for me and hopefully I'll move on from here and keep going forward and hopefully I'll carry the flag of the European No. 1 well for a year and, you know, who knows, come back next year better and stronger and win it again.”
A brilliant amateur career was the only thing that prompted him to turn his back on a career in accountancy in 1996 and hit the tour. He won in Spain in his rookie season and has slowly but surely climbed nearly every rung in the ladder since.
All that remains now is a major.
He said: “Obviously the focus for the last while has been on the majors, without a doubt. The US Open this year and the Open at Muirfield a few years ago are the only two that I've played well enough to have won.
“In the US Open this year I felt very comfortable and that gives me confidence that I can go on and win a major. Winning the Order of Merit is a distinctly different thing but something that nevertheless I'm very proud to have done.”
There can be no doubt now that he is the best player in the world never to have won a major title. While Donald and García are just ahead of him in the World Rankings, Harrington's status as European No 1 makes him the leading candidate to break Europe's seven year wait for a major winner next season.
If this year’s Volvo Masters is any indication, watching him try and do it will be anything but tedious.