- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hats off to Harrington.

Unlike a fifth of the world’s top-20 golfers, Irish stalwart Padraig Harrington decided to honor his commitment to this week’s Booz Allen Classic. Despite the most draining and disheartening finish of his major career at last week’s 106th U.S. Open, the 34-year-old Dublin native turned up at TPC at Avenel yesterday, an admirable if weary man of his word.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as tired, as deflated, from an event ever in my life,” said Harrington, who bogeyed Winged Foot’s final three holes Sunday to finish fifth — two strokes behind giveaway winner Geoff Ogilvy (5-over, 285) and a stroke behind Jim Furyk and the double-bogey duo of Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie. “Normally, it wouldn’t be that difficult to play the week after the Open. It is very tough when you’re in contention right to the end. I don’t think I’ve ever been as tired going into another event.

“When you’re setting a schedule, you don’t put into it that you’re going to go all the way in a U.S. Open, get very close and have such a downer at the end, let’s say … afterwards, I definitely would have liked nothing better than to be on a plane home, just chilling out for a week.”

Harrington could have done just that.

He certainly wouldn’t have been the lone high-profile defector from this week’s event. In the last fortnight, 10 top-100 players broke their commitments to the Booz Allen, including Ogilvy (No. 8), defending champion Sergio Garcia (No. 9), Adam Scott (No. 6) and Chris DiMarco (No. 20). And unlike any of those players, Harrington was actually in the crucible of Sunday’s stressful spotlight at Winged Foot. Among the other 155 players at Avenel, only Steve Stricker, the 36-hole Open leader and 1996 Booz Allen champion, can legitimately claim victory-fray fatigue.

“Playing in a major and contending are totally different,” explained Harrington, this week’s highest ranked competitor at World No. 23. “Contending takes so much more out of you. I’m just wiped out.”

But Harrington, who in 2003 finished tied for 13 on the 6,987-yard, par-71 layout, had a simple reason for agreeing to carry the banner as the Booz Allen’s marquee player.

Integrity.

“I think that would be the whole of it, yes,” Harrington explained. “I suppose the final word on how smart that decision was comes at the end of the week. If I fall flat on my face this week, then who’s to say I did the right thing?”

Washington-area golf fans certainly sanction Harrington’s decision. Already feeling spurned by PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem’s decision to exclude the 27-year local tour stop from next season’s high-profile FedEx Cup Series, Booz Allen patrons have had insult added to injury as this week’s once-promising tournament has been reduced to a glorified Nationwide Tour event by the recent rash of withdrawals.

Garcia tweaked his back in a pro-am at the Barclays Classic two weeks ago, withdrew from that event (which he has twice won) and then played miserably in missing the cut at Winged Foot (78-78) before pulling out of the Booz. His injury-related withdrawal seems an understandable, yet unfortunate, blow to the event. The other defectors, however, offered less compelling, if any, excuses.

The only other PGA Tour event this season without a top-20 player in the field was the Chrysler Classic of Tucson (Feb. 23-26), a tournament predictably hobbled by its schedule slot opposite the WGC World Match Play Championship.

Such a dubious field is doubly painful given the uncertain future of the event. With the tournament’s demotion to Fall Series status, current sponsor Booz Allen Hamilton has already declined to carry the title mantle for next season’s potential event. And if a new sponsor isn’t found in the next several weeks, this week’s Booz might well mark the PGA Tour’s last dance with Beltway galleries.

“We’re still cautiously optimistic,” KemperSports president Steven Skinner said yesterday of the sponsorship search committee, which meets today with Finchem. “We’re still working very hard in conjunction with the PGA Tour to find the right fit among various prospects. The [tournament] date in question, late September of ‘07, is still nearly 15 months away, so we still have some time to solidify something.”

At least one thing has been solidified at Avenel this week: Harrington’s reputation as one of the game’s ultimate stand-up guys. Regardless of his play this week, he has likely earned a legion of local fans for his decision.

“You always get a boost when the gun goes off and you tee it up in a new event. You hit the ball 20 yards farther than in practice, and the juices start flowing,” said Harrington, who has nine top-16 finishes this season in 15 starts split between the PGA and European Tours. “It will be interesting to see how much I recover by Thursday. Hopefully when I get up Thursday morning, I’ll have that spark and adrenaline to get out there and play golf.”

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