The Formula One season begins in Bahrain today but you can almost hear the engines roaring ahead of the final round of the WGC-CA Championship at the Doral’s Blue Monster circuit. We want to see an imperious drive from the winner, but secretly, we’re just waiting for the crashes, the shunts and shaking fists.
Gentlemen, start your engines.
Two South Africans, Ernie Els and Charl Schwartzel, occupy the front row of the grid from an Irishman who likes to come on the rails like a racehorse (Padraig Harrington), an Australian whose capable of anything (Robert Allenby) and a pair of young hotshots from the US (Bill Haas) and Germany (Martin Kaymer) with enough poke under the hood to blast everyone off the track.
And that’s just the first six. Breathing down their necks are another four tearaways with more than enough horsepower to pip the leading contenders at the checkered flag - Matt Kuchar, Paul Casey, Vijah Sngh and Soren Hansen.
With the artist formerly known as The Great One (Woods) secretly preparing for his comeback, this is a chance for someone to boot their ego and their confidence heading to Augusta National for the Masters in just three weeks’ time. For others it’s a chance to show they belong with the big boys.
The two most interesting characters in the drama are Ernie Els and Padraig Harrington, two men who want to don the green jacket awarded to the Masters champion more than anything in golf.
In 2005 Paul McGinley described Ernie Els as having a Rolls Royce golf game. It was a beautiful description. Els once played the fame with an effortless grace that belied his power. They called him the Big Easy, and I like to think that it wasn’t because he was laid back or because he had such a smooth swing, but because he won for fun. To date he has won three majors and a total of 64 tournaments worldwide, which is twice as many Charl Schwartzel and Harrington put together.
A 2005 injury it’s been 16 months since he won the Hassan II Trophy in Morocco and just over two years since his last big tour win at the 2008 Honda Classic. The last major victory dates to 2002 but some say Els died a little in 2000, when he was second in the Masters, the US Open and the Open.
When he won his second US Open in 1997 at the age of 27, many expected Els to challenge Gary Player’s haul of nine majors. Yes, won the 2002 Open at Murifield, as Harrington remembers all too clearly. But he lost to 2004 Masters to Phil Mickelson’s 72nd hole birdie and the 2004 Open to Todd Hamilton’s slitty-eyed cool in a four hole play-off at Royal Troon in 2004. He’s been a runner up in a major no few that six times (the same number as Mickelson incidentally).
Els turned 40 last October and has a burning desire to add to his three major wins. They say Woods once whispered that if he could break the “big guy’s” heart one more time, he might just stay away for good. He meant Els and he hasn’t won a major since the 2002 Open.
He was once a member of the Big Five that comprised Woods, Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, and Phil Mickelson. But his life has changed in recent years. He missed the second half of 2005 with a knee injury and made a slow recovery. It was so slow that he was reassessing his goals at the start of 2007 and declaring that he had a three year plan to get his game to a level where he could dethrone Woods. It hasn’t quite happened as planned. He has moved to Florida so that his seven year old son can get the best possible help for his autism. Life has gotten in the way.
Since he made that statement, seven players have shared the last 12 major titles between them - Harrington (3), Woods (2), Angel Cabrera (2), Zach Johnson, Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink and Yang Yong-eun one each.
With no one sure how Tiger Woods will be playing when he comes back from what for most people would consider to be a shattering public humiliation, Ernie senses that he can win majors again. If only he hadn’t looked so uncertain on the greens en route to a third round 70 with a shoved birdie putt from inside four feet the 16th the
He’s leading on 12 under par with 25 year old countryman and house guest Schwartzel, who has the game to become a major winner.
Doral is a punishing course that gives up birdies and Harrington would love to end a winless streak that dates back to last year’s Irish PGA at the European Club, eight months ago. Of course, it’s 19 months since he won his last tour event, the 2008 US PGA at Oakland Hills just a forthnight after he won the Open at Royal Birkdale with the kind of performance he might need at Doral tonight.
So often Harrington starts his week telling his diary readers that he just wants to have a chance entering the final nine holes on Sunday and take his chance from there. At Royal Birkdale in 2008, he was two strokes behind Greg Norman entering the final round, moved two shots clear through six holes and then bogeyed the seventh, eighth and ninth to fall one behind the Aussie before putting on a recital on the back nine to win by four from Ian Poulter with a 69.
At the US PGA the following month, Harrington was three shots behind Ben Curtis with a round to play on Sunday afternoon and shot a stunning 66 to win by two shots from the American and Spaniard Sergio Garcia.
At Birkdale, Harrington struck the ball superbly but at Oakland Hills, he holed a series of clutch putts coming down the stretch for par at 16, birdie at 17 and par at 18. Doral could require a combination of the two.
A win would put Harrington back into the world’s top six at worst and allow him to set one foot in Colin Montgomerie’s Ryder Cup team. More importantly it would confirm that he is on the right track again after finally getting some closure with the swings changes that obsessed his waking moments from the best part of seven months last season.
Once Harrington decided to stop tinker, the results were remarkable and all that was missing was a win. He played 12 tournaments between August and December finishing second twice, third twice, fourth three times and inside the top 10 twice more. While he didn’t win he will have been happy to to have put his neck on the block. If you don’t do that, you will never win. Needless to say, he will be nervous at Doral today.
On Saturday he played superbly on what Kaymer described as the toughest of the three days because of the crosswinds (Incidentally, McGinley regards Kaymer as a player that’s potentially as good as Rory McIlroy and already a multiple winner in Europe).
“I’m ready to go,” said Harrington, who had eight 3s on his card in a third-round 67 to trail Els and Schwartzel by a stroke on 11 under. “I’ve prepared to win the tournament and I’m in position. Now I just have to put it together.”
A sloppy three-putt bogey at the 18th irritated Harrington somewhat and what should have been a faultless, six under par 66 became a 67. But while that error cost him his place in the final two ball with Schwartzel, it helped to focus his mind on the fact that nothing is simple at Doral and mental strength will be key.
“I am happy,” Harrington said after his round. It is leaving a sour taste to bogey the last, but finishing 11-under, 12-under has no real effect on the outcome tomorrow, as in, I think I had a brief look there there’s three of us up there, whoever plays the best golf tomorrow is going to win the tournament.
“There will be ebbs and flows and that one shot will truly be eaten up at some stage. But I’ll have my opportunity, so have to go out there and play well. Like if I was sitting at 12-under, I would be feeling the same way going out tomorrow as I do on 11-under. I don’t feel like I have to attack anymore and I certainly can’t defend. I have to go and play golf.”
As a man who loves to tick off goals, Harrington has good reason to want to capture his first World Golf Championship title. No-one has played in more WGCS than Harrington - it’s his 33rd appearance this week (11 Accenture Match Plays, 11 Bridgestone Invitationals, 10 CA’s or American Express Championships and one HSBC Champions.) That’s one more than Stuart Appleby, who failed to qualify for Doral after crashing to world No 151, and two more than Woods.
For those wondering how Harrington pieced together those nine top 10s from 12 starts in the latter half of 2009, here’s the list. And if you think he backed off in those final rounds, it is worth pointing out that he broke 70 almost every time. He’s going to take some beating.
Dec 6 - Chevron World Challenge - Start T3, finish T3
One behind Graeme McDowell and YE Yang with a round to go, Harrington chipped in twice for eagle in a closing 70.
“You know, I had seven three-putts,” Harrington said of his week, adding, “I can’t give up that many on the greens.”
Nov. 22 - Dubai World Championship - Start T3, finish T4
Five strokes behind Lee Westwood in tied third with a round to go, Harrington closed with a 68 to share fourth place.
Nov. 8 - WGC HSBC Champions Start T32, finish T25.
Tied 32nd, 13 shots behind Mickelson, he closed with a 67 to finish tied 25th.
Oct. 18 - Portugal Masters - Start T9, finish 3rd
Six strokes behidn Retief Goosen in a share of ninth, he signed off with a five under par 67 to finish five shots behind Lee Westwood in solo third.
Oct. 4 - Alfred Dunhill Links - Start T58, finish T26
Eleven behind eventual winner Simon Dyson, he shot 66 in the last round to move up to tied 26th, ten strokes behind the Englishman
The Tour Championship - Start T5, finish T4
Five behind Kenny Perry after shooting 71 to 64 by playing partner Tiger Woods in round three, he closed with a 69 to finish five behind Phil Mickelson in a share of fourth place.
BMW Championship - Start T4, finish T6
Eight behind Tiger Woods in tied fourth starting the day, he closed with a 73 to share sixth as Woods won by eight from Jim Furyk and Marc Leishman.
Deutsche Bank Championship - Start T4 - finish T4
Tied for fourth, just one stroke behind Steve Stricker, Sean O’Hair and Retief Goosen with a round to play, Harrington closed with a 68 but finished two behind Stricker (67) in tied fourth.
He said: “I’ll feel this one a lot more than say some of the others because of the fact that it was mine for the winning.”
The Barclays Start T7 - finish T2
Five behind lead Paul Goydos in tied seventh, he closed with a 67 to share second place behind surprise winner Heath Slocum.
US PGA - Start T2, finish T10
Two strokes behind Woods and tied for second with YE Yang, Harrington was one stroke off the lead with 11 holes to play when he ran up an eight at the par three eighth and shot 78 to finish tied 10th - eight shots behind eventual champion Yang.
WGC - Bridgestone Invitational - Start 1st - finish T2
Led by three from Tiger Woods but closed with 72 to 65 by the American to finish tied second with Robert Allenby. An eight at the 16th cost the Dubliner the title. Was it Woods seven iron to a foot that rattled Harrington or the fact that John Paramor had put the group on the clock and he was rushed out of his comfort zone?