By Brian Keogh
Padraig Harrington headed for Royal Birkdale feeling like a winner in more ways than one after he successfully retained the Labrokes.com Irish PGA title at The European Club.
Eight and a half months after his last win, the Hassan II Trophy in Morocco, the reigning Open champion finished four strokes clear of fellow Dubliner Philip Walton and declared himself satisfied with the state of his game ahead of his defence of the Claret Jug on Merseyside this week.
“It is always better to get a winning feeling,” Harrington said, the cheers of the 2,000 strong gallery still ringing in his ears. “It is a habit and not a bad habit to stick with. I haven't won for seven or eight months now. It is always a nice feeling.”
Harrington picked up just €10,000 for his efforts and after giving his game a thorough workout on links terrain, he will tee it up at Birkdale with an excellent chance of becoming the first European to win back to back Open Championships since James Braid in 1906.
He dismissed the notion that he will be a stroke up on his rivals when the action starts on Thursday but he still had the self-satisfied look of a man who knows when he has had a winner.
After enduring wind, rain and fog and honing every aspect of the links game, he will be better prepared than the players who opted to play for big money in the clashing Barclays Scottish Open on parkland terrain at Loch Lomond
"I don't think it puts me a shot ahead of anybody else but it will certainly save me shots and make my golf better next week.” he said. “I don't think I'll be giving handicaps to anyone.
"It’s been an excellent exercise and I couldn't have asked for a better week in preparation for the Open. I played nice golf at times and hit some nice iron shots in close. I putted lovely all week as well so I'm very happy with that end of things. All in all, it was a very positive week."
Practising on a links is all very well but the competitive nature of the entire exercise was worth its weight in gold to Harrington ahead of his Major championship defence.
"You have to judge the run out on the ball when you are around the greens and how the rough is reacting when you are chipping,” Harrington said. “You can’t tell unless you are really trying to get up and down. It is no use if you can always drop another ball and hit it. It has got to be one shot at a time and it is excellent in those terms."
On a day when Francis Howley of Carton House took 20 strokes off his first round effort with a best of the week 67, Harrington won easily in the end, despite bogeys at the first and fourth that saw his six-stroke overnight lead cut to just four shots.
“My alignment was off and I think that was probably because of the neck injury I had last week so that meant that I had to concentrate a little harder and that is a good thing,” Harrington explained. “I should have that sorted out by next week.”
The key to his fifth Irish PGA success came near the end of the front nine in Saturday’s final round, when he birdied the fifth, got up and down for par from sand on the seventh and then birdied the eighth from 40 feet after driving wildly into the dunes.
“When I got a good break to birdie the eighth, that set the seal on it,” he said. “Seven and eight were the turning points. I could have gone through those holes in one over and I played them in one under.”
Birdies at the 13th and 15th put Harrington an impressive eight shots clear of Walton with three holes to play but he bogeyed the 16th and then double bogeyed the 18th after a visit the water hazard short of the green to turn a possible 69 into a one-over par 72 and a one-over par aggregate of 285.
Set to tee it up alongside Harrington in the Open this week, Walton carded a one-under par 70 to finish in second place on five-over par with Waterville's David Higgins ion third place on seven-over.
"Philip played lovely golf as always," Harrington said. "I'd like to hit as straight as he hits it. It is a big bonus for him. Birkdale is not a long hitter's course and he is very comfortable off the tee. That is one of the big features at Birkdale as Mark O’Meara proved when he won there (in 1998). You just want to be able to hit it very straight, over and over."
Walton never looked likely to claim his fifth Irish PGA title but after playing six rounds of links golf in as many days, outscoring Harrington 70-72 in the final round, he planned to take a couple of days off before crossing the Irish Sea for his first Open appearance since he played at Royal Birkdale in 1998.