By Brian Keogh
Golf, as Paul McGinley is fond of saying, is a numbers game. And the numbers that tell the story of the 2007 Irish Professional Championship are a testament to the difficulty of Pat Ruddy’s fiendishly designed Co Wicklow creation.
A field of 120 took on The European Club but by the time Headfort’s Brendan McGovern picked up his ball-marker and shook hands with four-time champion Pádraig Harrington after a sudden-death play-off, many of Ireland’s leading club professionals were already busy licking their multiple wounds.
Only McGovern and Harrington, who survived a 71st hole triple bogey and then birdied the last before triumphing with a par at the first extra hole, finished in red-figures after four days on five-under par.
The next best was Philip Walton on two-over while the lowest score of the week was a wonderful, five-under par 66 by McGovern that was fully two strokes better than Harrington’s best round and an amazing 12 shots lower than the course scoring average for the week - a heady 78.23.
Fortunately for the participants, the Irish Region of the PGA opted not the play the par-71, 7,355-yard course from the back markers. Region secretary Michael McCumiskey and his staff try to ensure a fair test and playing from around 7,000 yards was more than enough for a group of players unaccustomed to 72-hole championship golf.
Still, the scoreboard was far from flattering to many of them. After 313 rounds of golf, the result was a blinding victory for the course as the humans finish a staggering 2,264 over par.
The most difficult hole was the par-four seventh, which measures around 470 yards from the back stakes. Played from a forward tee, it produced just seven birdies all week and every score from three to 11 as it averaged 4.96.
The next most difficult holes were the par-four 10th and 18th and even the par-five 13th, which proved to be the most accessible on the course, played slightly over par.
On such a difficult track, world number 10 Harrington was always going to take some beating. But McGovern almost upset the form book thanks to that marvelous seven-birdie 66 on Saturday morning and Harrington’s 17th hole triple bogey.
Two strokes clear of McGovern at halfway after rounds of 69 and 68, Harrington found himself two-adrift at lunchtime on Saturday as he carded a 70 to McGovern’s 66.
The championship was severely disrupted by the weather during Friday’s third round, when the last five groups never even got to hit a shot after more than seven hours play had been lost due to torrential rain and drifting fog.
But that hardly seemed to bother 41-year-old McGovern, who shared the first round lead with Harrington and Michael Hoey after a 69 and was never out of the top two after that.
Heading into the third round, just Harrington, McGovern and Waterville’s David Higgins were in red figures. Four hours later, Harrington was two off the pace on six under par and seven clear of Higgins, who faded from contention with a 74, a score he would repeat in the final round.
Indeed, McGovern was arguably the star of the championship. With rounds of 69, 70, 66 and 74 he matched Harrington for 72 holes and outscored him by two shots when they played the final two rounds together.
He also made more birdies than Harrington - winning that count 17-15 - though the European number one did make an eagle three at the 13th in a Saturday morning 70.
In the course of a topsy-turvy final round which saw him lose and regain his two stroke lead several times, McGovern matched Harrington shot and did not all behind until the 15th, where Harrington completed a birdie hat-trick with a deft 25 footer down the hill to creep on in front
Driving has been McGovern’s Achilles' heel of late and the pressure finally told on the 16th, when he pushed his tee shot in deep trouble and did well to save a bogey five after being forced to take a penalty drop.
Two behind now, his race looked run. Yet Harrington made things interesting with a triple bogey seven at the 17th - the kind of mistake you don't expect from one of the world's elite players
As his website later reported: "There should be a health warning on this tee - DON'T GO LEFT!" Harrington did go left, explaining later that he was distracted on the tee and failed to back off. Now one stroke behind, he needed something special at the 18th and produced it under the kosh.
Champion that he is, he fired his approach to 12 feet, rolled home the birdie putt to force extra holes and then claimed the title with a par on the same hole after McGovern pulled his tee shot into trouble.
"You can pocket $150,000 for finishing tenth sometimes," Harrington said afterwards, "but it is not as good as finishing first. Competing is everything.”
A former European Tour player, McGovern was disappointed to come so close to a famous victory. "Even though I drove the ball well for four days, I have been driving it badly for three years now," he said. "I was waiting for that bad shot and it came along on the 16th and again in the play-off.
"Having said that, I was lucky on the 17th with what happened to Padraig. I played well and I enjoyed it. Fair dos to Padraig. The best player won."