Harrington an improved player

By Brian Keogh

Padraig Harrington launched into his US Masters countdown and insisted: What a difference a year makes!

As journeyman Mark Wilson pulled off a fairytale victory in a Monday play-off for the Honda Classic, Harrington is full of confidence heading to Augusta despite an incredible rollercoaster finish to a four-week spell in the US.

Wilson birdied the third extra hole yesterday to edge out Jose Coceres in a play-off after Camilo Villegas and Boo Weekley had been eliminated at the second tie hole.

But Harrington declared himself happy with his game despite being forced to settle for a share 13th place after a closing 71 that featured more ups and downs than Wilson's entire career.

The Dubliner, 35, had an eagle, three birdies, three bogeys and a costly triple bogey seven on Sunday night to finish just five shots outside a four-man play-off for the title - with the three birdies coming in his last six holes.

And he insists that his game is way ahead of where it was at this stage last season, which is good news as he prepares to start his build up to Augusta in two weeks' time.

Harrington said: "Things are a hell of a lot better at this stage than they were at this time last year. I am just playing better, I am swinging the club better and I am better prepared mentally.

"My putting is a lot better and the only thing is that my chipping and bunker play would be worse. But I'll have a chance to sort those things out over my two week break."

Reflecting on the Honda Classic, where he had a costly triple bogey seven at the long par-four sixth in the final round, Harrington was disappointed to have let a winning chance slip away.

He said: "All the way through the round I created a lot of chances and one bad shot just caught me out.

"The sixth was a very difficult hole and I hit my tee shot in the water, laid up from there and with a very difficult pin position I plugged my next one in the bunker and couldn't go at the flag.

"It was a tough hole. I didn't want to make five at it and I succeeded nicely in doing that!

"I played really well all week and that was a good. Five shots back, when I look back on it, wasn't too far.

"I think I played the two par threes, the 15th and 17th, in four under par. And they were the hardest holes on the course apart from the sixth.

"That set up the chance to do really well on that golf course. I played well but that is the nature of the game."

It was a strange end to a productive month-long US trip that began with Harrington spending 62 hours in bed with 'flu before finishing 30th in the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach.

From there he threatened to win the Nissan Open at Riviera in Los Angeles before sliding to 17th place and then lost out to Stewart Cink in the second round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Arizona.

Harrington added: "You can't look too much at Pebble Beach, where I did well to finish 30th. But in the other two strokeplay events I was in contention and that was really good. As for Arizona, matchplay is matchplay."

While Harrington rested in Dublin, Wilson made a birdie on the par-three third extra hole to edge out Coceres and win his first PGA Tour title at the Honda Classic.

After 111 events without a win, Wilson rolled in an eight-footer on the 17th at Palm Beach Gardens' PGA National Course before Coceres lipped out to lose in sudden-death for the second week in a row.

On Friday, he called a two-shot penalty on himself because his caddy inadvertently gave Villegas and his caddy club information on the par-three fifth hole.

But destiny was on his side as he holed a series of outrageous putts to stay in the title hunt.

Wilson said: "After the putts went in on 16, 18 and then in the playoff yesterday on 18, I just had a feeling someone wanted me to win."

Wilson, 32, has been forced to go to the qualifying school for each of the last 10 years but is now exempt until the end of the 2009 season after earning €990,000.