Harrington and Woods in battle of titans

For years we’ve been waiting for someone to stand up and take on Tiger Woods in a major. Finally, it appears that Ireland’s Padraig Harrington is ready to throw down the gauntlet.

Not that you’d know that by listening to the recently crowned Open champion Steward Cink, who believes they may as well hand the 91st US PGA Championship and his 15th major victory to Woods right now.

“I'd say he's got a pretty good chance,” Cink said. “Probably better than anybody else in the field. How is that for an answer? He's driving it pretty well. He's got a short game that history has never known, he's got the clutch putting that history has never known, and he's got the ultimate tank of confidence to draw from. So case closed.”

Before last week’s Bridgestone Invitational showdown, a head-to-head between Harrington and Woods on the longest course in major championship history would have looked like one of the biggest mismatches of the year.

With eight missed cut from 16 strokeplay starts, Harrington had lurched from drama to a crisis this season until he appeared to find the magic formula once more on the narrow fairways of Firestone Country Club, opening with a 64 and leading after every round until he racked up that horrific, triple bogey eight at the 16th in the final round.

Judging by the way he stood up Harrington after their showdown ended in a controversial anti-climax last Sunday, the world No 1 can’t wait for a chance to do battle with Harrington again without the interference of the referees.

They have been grouped together for the first two rounds here at Hazeltine National alongside the shock 2002 winner Rich Beem. And after sharing nine of the last 15 majors between them, it’s going to be a fascinating curtain-raiser to a championship that will see Woods bid for his third tournament win in a row and a record equalling fifth PGA title that would leave him just three majors short of Jack Nickalus’s 18 wins.

Harrington is still a fragile champion despite his wonderful exhibition in Akron, where he topped the putting charts and recovered brilliantly from his occasional visits to the trees until he rushed his way to defeat under pressure from referee John Paramor

Yes, his swing is still a work in progress since he started tweaking his impact position at the end of last season. But the 37 year old Dubliner hasn’t forgotten how to win and if he gets a sniff on victory coming down the stretch on Sunday afternoon, we’re sure to see the 1,000 yard stare that froze Sergio Garcia out at Oakland Hills last year.

Confidence breeds confidence and the only question mark over Harrington this week is his ability to forget his Firestone torture and get on with the business of winning his fourth major title.

“I think winning any major, and winning majors definitely increases your confidence. You believe in yourself more,” Harrington said. “The win last year, being able to shoot the scores on the weekend, knowing that if I stay in touch, I can still produce the fireworks if necessary.

“Then there is the ability to come from behind, to catch up, and that's an important thing I would have got from last year.

“I think it's nice to know that you can shoot two 66s on the weekend of a major and come from the pack.

“And it's also nice to know at Birkdale that I can lead from the front being in the last group and win. So, yeah, there is confidence, definitely, from having done it.”

While the bookies have installed Woods as the 15-8 favourite , Harrington and Phil Mickelson are regarded as the next best in the field at 22-1. Without Woods in the betting, Harrington is the tournament favourite at 14-1.

Looking at his statistics, it would appear that the only man who can beat Woods in Minnesota is Woods himself.

In 11 strokeplay starts he has played since undergoing reconstructive knee surgery last year, the world No 1 has won five times. The only disappointment from his point of view is the results he has garnered in the majors.

He was sixth in the Masters and the US Open because he putted poorly and six bad holes at Turnberry caused him to miss just his second cut in a major at last month’s Open.

Naturally, Woods has opted to look on the bright side.

“It's been a great year either way,” he said. “For me to come back and play and play as well as I've done and actually win golf events; to say at the very beginning of the year, when I was feeling the way I was, to be honest with you, I don't think any of us would have thought I could have won this many events this year.”

Measuring a massive 7,674 yards off the back stakes, Hazeltine is so long that there are three par-fives of more than 600 yards as well as the 518 yard par-four 12th and the 248 yard, par three 13th.

While on paper it looks like a long hitters paradise, the fact that some of the longest par-fives will force all but the longest bombers to lay up means that the short hitters also have a chance to do some damage with their short games.

The leaderboard at the Bridgestone Invitational would not have looked out of place at a major with Robert Allenby, Hunter Mahan, Masters champion Angel Cabrera, Steve Stricker, Cink, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Lee Westwood and Mike Weir all finishing in the top ten.

Zach Johnson, who won the Masters laying up on all the par fives, was 15th. And it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a medium hitter like Johnson or Jim Furyk could win this week.

Harrington is as good as Woods or Phil Mickelson with a wedge or a putter in his hand and that will give him even more self-belief on a course that is playing long because of recent rain.

But while Woods is playing is 50th major this week and Harrington his 46th, Rory McIlroy knows that he has time on his side when he tees it up in just his fifth Grand Slam and only his fourth since turning professional.

“For my first year in the majors, I feel as if I've done very well,” McIlroy said. “I've had a Top-20 at the Masters, finished 10th at the U.S. Open. Pretty disappointed at Turnberry not to finish higher.

“The thing about majors is that it's almost easier to get yourself into position to do well compared to a normal tournament, because you don't have to make as many birdies.

“You can just grind a few pars out and shoot a few decent scores around level par and you'll know that you'll not be far away.”

Having beaten Harrington in the recent Lough Erne challenge, McIlroy was delighted to see the Dubliner find form in Akron last week.

“Everyone was anticipating a Padraig and Tiger showdown at some stage. A lot of people thought it wouldn't have taken this long, but it did,” he said. “I think Padraig did great. He played really solid golf, made 14 pars and a birdie the first 15 holes, and then obviously 16 happened, which was very unfortunate.

“You know, I think everyone would love to be in the position that Padraig was in on Sunday going head-to-head with Tiger, especially having a three-shot lead and trying to hold him off.”

The detrimental effect of playing with Woods for two round is one of Harrington’s biggest worries this week because he knows that the withdrawal of that adrenaline rush could leave him feeling spent come the weekend.

“The hardest thing about playing with Tiger in the first few days is very few players play very well in the next two days after,” Harrington said.

“Devastated” by his loss last Sunday, Harrington can’t afford to many emotional highs and lows over the next two days. If he can come through the cut unscathed, we could be in for a fascinating weekend.