Harrington retains the Open and joins the greats

From Brian Keogh at Royal Birkdale

It will rank up there with the greatest achievements in Irish sporting history but as he cradled the old Claret Jug for the second year in succession, new world No 3 Padraig Harrington preferred bask in the glory of an imperious victory rather and reflect on where it might place him in the pantheon of Irish sporting greats.

Following a final round performance that saw the Dubliner move up a gear on the back nine and scorch home in 32 blows for a closing one-under-par 69 and a four-stroke victory over England’s Ian Poulter (69), only history will decide the 36-year-old’s place in the annals of sporting folklore alongside the likes of Arkle or Pat O'Callaghan.

With a four round aggregate of 283, three-over-par, Harrington’s margin of victory was the biggest since Tiger Woods claimed the first of back-to-back Open titles by five shots at St Andrews in 2005. It also made him the first European since James Braid in 1906 to retain the title and moved him into an elite group of 32 golfers who have claimed two Major Championships and into the same league as multiple major winners such as Jose Maria Olazabal, Retief Goosen, John Daly and third placed Greg Norman.

Ireland’s third Major victory - Fred Daly was the forerunner at Hoylake in 1947 - came at the expense of the 53-year-old Australian Norman, who came into the final round with a two stroke lead over Harrington and the Korean KJ Choi, bidding to become the oldest winner of a Grand Slam title in the history of the game.

Not for the first time in his career, the Great White Shark was washed up on the shoreline of immortality and his first Open triumph, which came at Turnberry in 1986, remains the only Major he has won when leading going in the final round.

A final round 77 relegated the man from Queensland to a share of third place alongside the Swede Henrik Stenson on nine-over par as Harrington reeled him in within two holes, claimed the lead on his own after three and then treated the 40,000 strong crowd to the one of the great back nine performances in Open history.

Two strokes clear of Poulter with two to play, the shot that clinched Harrington's second Open title will go down in Irish sporting history. "You're two ahead," Ronan Flood told Harrington. Fearing an eagle by Norman, who was just three behind, Harrington hit a 249 yard five wood to four feet. The rest is history.

Asked how it felt to become, arguably, the greatest achiever in Irish sport, Harrington took only a split second to consider his answer, explaining: “Things like that will sink in over the next couple of days. You know, one of the keys to playing well on a Sunday is you don’t ever get into the consequences of what you are doing. I did that very well today.

“I never at any stage started think about what it means to win a second Open, defend an Open, to win two Majors. Obviously winning a Major puts you in a special club. Winning two of them puts you in a new club altogether.

“This is what winning is about. You savour these things. These things will come into your mind over the next week. But at the moment I couldn’t even tell you what I won today.”

Indicating the Claret Jug gleaming on the table in front of him, his niggling wrist injury long forgotten, Harrington added: “It’s all about this at the moment.”

In terms of what it all means, Harrington will officially be installed as the third best golfer in the world today behind the injured Woods and Phil Mickelson, who tied for 19th place on 14-over par with Ulsterman Graeme McDowell.

His 23rd professional victory and 13th European Tour win was the sixth Irish success of the season in Europe and the first by Harrington on an official tour since he triumphed at Carnoustie 12 months ago.

Thanks to 100 world ranking points and a cheque for £750,000 (€938,565) he is now an automatic qualifier for September’s Ryder Cup after moving to the top of the European Points List .

But it was the manner of his victory that will live long in the memory - a final round that saw him follow consecutive front nine bogeys at the seventh, eighth and ninth with birdies at the 13th and 15th and a majestic, championship winning eagle three at the par-five 17th.

Starting the day two strokes adrift of Norman on four-over par, Harrington got up and down for from 40 yards short of the first green for par, pitching stone dead, as Norman found a greenside bunker and racked up the first of eight final round bogeys.

The Australian would drop further shots at the second and third, where Harrington holed a vital 12 footer for par, to leave the Dubliner in sole possession of the lead on four-over par. The lead would soon become two strokes when the white haired Australian hacked his way to a bogey at the 499-yard sixth.

But Harrington would not be Harrington without wobbling at some stage and a pulled tee shot at the par-three seventh signalled the a run of three successive bogeys that turned his two stroke lead converted into a one-shot deficit with respect to Norman entering the fabled back nine of the 137th Open Championship.

Committing to his shots in a 25 mph wind was the key to Harrington’s triumph at Royal Birkdale but he failed to so at the seventh, pulling his tee shot well left of the green for the first of a hat-trick of bogeys that threw the championship wide open.

Harrington parred the 10th and Norman bogeyed to leave them tied for the lead on seven over as Choi fell away with a final round 79. It soon became clear that the flamboyant Poulter would have a part to play when he birdied the 16th to join the lead and then parred the last from 20 feet to set the clubhouse target of seven -over par with a 69.

And as the Australian bogeyed the 12th and 13th, Harrington smelled blood in the water and pounced like a predator rolling home a vital 15 footer there to move one clear of Poulter and three ahead of the Australian

When Norman saved par at the 14th, Harrington feared that the ‘Shark’ might not be quite out of the running and birdied the 15th to go two clear of Poulter and remain thee ahead of his playing partner.

A brilliant par at the 16th left Harrington in command but the clinched the title definitively with a magnificent eagle at the 17th. After a five wood off the tee, he was left debating his options with his caddie Ronan Flood. Thinking he was three clear, Flood told he only had two to spare on Poulter.

“I’m going for it so,” Harrington said and unleashed a low five-wood from a downhill lie that cleared the fairway traps on the left and ran the 249 yards to the pin, settling four feet beyond the pin on the back tier.

A shot for all time, he duly rolled home the putt to take a four stroke lead up the last and consigned the memories of Carnoustie to the dustin-bin of history by splitting the fairway with a three-wood and then rifling a 194 yard five iron to 15 feet.

As for his injured wrist, Harrington reckoned the distraction only helped him in his defence, explaining: "In hindsight the fact that I didn't play three practice rounds meant I was fresh for the battle ahead. It took a bit of stress and pressure off me. It was a good distraction. Sometimes you need that. I knew my game was there but maybe this week I made the right decision at the right time and got the right break at the right time.

"On Wednesday I genuinely felt there was a big issue with playing. On Wednesday evening I spent time with Bob Rotella talking about playing if it was painful. We decided you can play through the pain but once I hit a couple of shots out of the rough it gave me more and more confidence."

Poulter was generous in defeat. "It is a hell of a performance,” he said. “Back-to-back Opens haven't been done that often.”

As for Norman, the disappointment was just as great at 53 years of age as it was earlier in his career. “I'm obviously disappointed," said Norman. “The toughest thing is shooting 77. The wind moved around and blew more awkwardly for us, but it didn't feel like a high score today.

“Padraig played brilliantly. He performed beautifully and like a true champion. He looked like he was trying to throw it away around seven and eight but made a good putt on ten for par which got him back on track. The way he finished was like a true champion.”

If Pat O'Callaghan's feat of retaining the Olympic hammer title in the 1932 Los Angeles games is the greatest Irish sporting feat of the 20th century, Harrington's win at Royal Birkdale may yet go down as the best of the new millennium.

Enjoying the thrill of doing it again, Harrington said: "There's a different satisfaction this year. ..... Last year was a thrilling win and I was on top of the world when I won. This year is more satisfying. I feel more accomplished this year. I hit the ball every bit as solid as I have ever hit it and that will give me confidence going forward. Definitely."