From Brian Keogh at Royal Birkdale
Padraig Harrington kept his iron grip on the Claret Jug thanks to sensational superstar finish at Royal Birkdale.
The Dubliner looked in danger of missing the cut when he slipped to six-over par with seven holes of his second round to play.
But he kept his cool and played the last four holes in FOUR UNDER par thanks to an amazing birdie-par-eagle-birdie finish.
It all added up to a two-under par 68 for the defending champion, who joined Graeme McDowell in seven man log-jam for fourth place, just three shots adrift of leader KJ Choi on two-over par.
Gunning now for back-to-back Open wins, Harrington will battle 50 mph winds today and hope his survives to pounce on the back nine in the final round.
Grinning from ear to ear, he said: “I am delighted. I am well in there with 36 holes to go but you just want to be there with nine to play and I believe conditions are going to be tough tomorrow. It is exactly where you want to be.
“This whole tournament is going to be sorted out in the last nine holes and you just want to be in the hunt. If you do a few good things with nine holes to go, you'll be the winner. If I have a finish like today, it is going to count.”
Harrington confessed that his niggling wrist injury helped relieve the pressure of defending and kept his mind occupied in the long build up.
And after coming from six shots behind 54-hole leader Sergio Garcia to win last year, he knows he is perfectly positioned to become the first European to retain the Claret Jug for 102 years.
Starting in the worst of the day's conditions, he got a break when he holed a 10-yard bunker shot for birdie at the second and while he wobbled in mid-round, his steely determination pulled him through in the end.
Loose tee shots and tentative putting lead to bogeys at the sixth and 10th before a distraction by a sound engineer cost him another bogey at the 11th.
But he shrugged off the danger of missing the cut by draining a slippery, four-foot curler for par at the 13th and then went for broke over the closing holes with spectacular results.
He said: “I was going nice and steady and they hit stray shots on 10 and 11 and all of a sudden I am starting to leak a few and wondering what the cut is.
“On one hand I know I am not too far away from coming back into the tournament and on the other hand I want to make sure I have another 36 holes on the weekend.”
Kicking off with a wedge to six feet for a birdie at the par-five 15th, he then unleashed a 325-yard three-wood at the downwind par-five 17th and followed up with a 229-yard five-iron to 30 feet and rattled home the uphill eagle putt.
Another massive three-wood left him just 183 yards to the pin at the 473-yard 18th and he took advantage by cracking a majestic nine-iron to seven feet and rolling home the putt to massive roars.
His finish was a huge contrast to the first round, when he weathered terrible conditions only to finish bogey-bogey.
This time played the holes in five strokes fewer but while he’s looking good, he knows there is still a long way to go and patience will be vital.
He said: “ It is nice when you get the odd break and I holed a bunker shot today. It helps you be patient and wait for the next time.
“This round will help me to continue playing solid golf and just wait for my chances, knowing that I don’t have to push. They will happen.
“I holed a really nice putt on 13 that was a difficult read and the birdie on the 15th gave me that comfort on the last three holes.
“The 17th was a total contrast to yesterday when I finished 6-5 after doing all the hard work for 16 holes. Today it was 3-3.
“It was a bonus. To make an eagle in any major championship and finish four under for the last four holes, you don’t expect that in majors.
“But I stuck to my game plan and hit some nice solid shots after the bogeys. You have to stay patient out there. In majors you have to wait for a little run like I got at the end of my round.
“You might get two or three runs in a week where you make a few birdies in succession that make up for all the steady golf you have to play at times.
“I had a lot of putts across slopes that you couldn’t go at but the one on 17 was straight up the hill an once it got over the tier it was tracking nicely and held its line. You have to wait for your chances.”
As for his right wrist, Harrington had a scare when he hacked out of rough at the 11th and took his hand off the club.
But he is not concerned about it now and called it a “nice distraction” for the first two days, when he hardly practised at all.
He said: “ On 11 there was an issue hitting out of some very heavy rough off the bank. When the club dug into the ground, it gave me a fright that I might hurt my wrist and that’s why I let go of the club.
"I think the wrist injury distracted me and took some of the pressure off me this week. But I will be cautious and take the anti-inflammatories and have treatment but I think it is okay."
Harrington is not surprised to see Greg Norman near the top of the leaderboard and doesn’t rule out an Open win for the Aussie or anyone else who made the cut.
He said: “If Greg Norman is interested, he is a mighty fine player still. It is possible. No question about it.
“Anyone who makes the cut is in with a shout. If the conditions are to be that tough tomorrow, who knows what is going to win this week.”