Pádraig Harrington daintily picked his way through the wreckage of a nightmare week for Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els when he closed with a confidence-boosting 66 to finish in a six-way tie for ninth with Rory McIlroy at Firestone Country Club.
With Woods crashing to a 77 that left him tied for 78th in the 80-man field on 18-over par, the world No 1 ranking was there for the taking for Mickelson, who needed a top-four finish to take over at the summit of world golf for the first time.
Incredibly, the left-hander tripped over his shoelaces on the final lap, slithering from tied tenth at the bell to tied 46th on three-over par following a horrendous, eight over par 78 that was lacking in any kind of control.
“It was a rough day,” said Mickelson, who still believes he has time to turn his game around for the US PGA this week. “I’m going to have to do what I did at Augusta. I played like this in Houston the week before and I’m going to have to get it turned around in three days.”
Amid such drama, the title race became something of an after-thought. Els, fourth overnight, crashed to a 76 as the American Hunter Mahan emerged from the pack to card a six-under 64 and win by two strokes from compatriot Ryan Palmer (69) on 12 under par, pocketing a cheque for $1.4m that eases him into the US Ryder Cup team.
First comes this week’s US PGA at Whistling Straits and Ireland’s trio of participants bounced out of Rubber City with a grinning and dancing Harrington only marginally happier than McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, who tied for 22nd after a 72.
Harrington’s four under par 66 gave him his sixth top 10 of the season and his 16th since he won the US PGA at Oakland Hills exactly two years ago this week.
“I struggled on the greens but I’m happy,” said Harrington, who’s feeling upbeat about his chances of ending his winless spell in Wisconsin next Sunday. “I really did create a bundle of chances out there. That’s nice going forward and I’m happy with the game as I leave here.”
Distracted all week by his final preparations for this week’s major test, Harrington donned his Sunday scoring hat and surged to the turn in four-under par 31.
His round took off when he eagled the par-five second thanks to a spectacular 267-yard wood to 10 feet. And while he dropped a shot at the short fifth, where he was bunkered, he birdied the sixth from 10 feet and the downhill eighth from three feet thanks to an incredible, 378-yard drive.
Having hit the ball “as close as I’ve ever hit it” before being forced to settle for a level par 70 on Saturday, Harrington squeezed more from his game in the final round, holing a 22 footer at the ninth to go into the back nine just four shots adrift of the leaders.
He came home in level par, erasing a bogey at the short 12th by slotting home an eight footer at the next and declared that he has done enough work on his game that he will play no more than 36 holes in practice in Wisconsin.
“I certainly overdid the work this week, and I’m putting that down to too much time spent on the range has maybe upset my putting a little bit,” said Harrington, who closed the gap on Miguel Angel Jimenez in the race for eight automatic places on the European Ryder Cup team. “It may be that I am just a little bit tired, so I’m not going to worry about the putting because I putted great last week.
“I’m happy with the longer game. The work has paid off, and certainly I’m happy with the amount of chances I created.”
McIlroy barely moved out of second gear all week as he tied for ninth place with Harrington on five under par thanks to a one-under par 69 that bodes well for his chances of becoming a major winner this week.
With Woods and Mickelson struggling and Lee Westwood out of the major picture until next season, the 21-year old Ulsterman knows that he has a fighting chance at a course where straight driving will be vital.
“I couldn’t be happier going into next week,” said McIlroy, who had four birdies and three bogeys. “It was a good week to get a top 10 without burning up too much energy.”
Asked if he next week represented a golden opportunity with Woods and Mickelson at odds with their games, McIlroy agreed but pointed to the closing 65 of Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, who also finished on five under.
“There are a lot of players who have a great chance to win,” McIlroy said. “Just look at Louis.”
Fully recovered from the suspected bug that hampered him on Friday, McDowell closed with a two over par 72 that featured a roller coaster front nine of three birdies, three bogeys and a double bogey six at the tough fourth.
But after coming home in level with a birdie at the 12th and a bogey at the last, the US Open champion is feeling good about his chances in the final major of the season, where he will partner Mickelson and Oosthuizen.
“That sloppy front nine was probably the worst I’ve played all week but I got it together on the back and putted much better even though I didn’t make anything.” McDowell said. “I hit a lot of good putts and the game is in good shape for next week.
“Today was a day where you had to shoot 66 to make any kid of impression on the leaderboard. But it’s been a great week mentally and I’m ready to go next week.”