- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2007

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Golf’s leprechaun turned the pardon of a lifetime into a pot of major playoff gold.

Paroled from the seemingly certain golf purgatory of a 72nd-hole double bogey, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington made the most of his second chance yesterday at Carnoustie, clipping Spain’s Sergio Garcia by a stroke in a four-hole playoff to win the 136th British Open.

“I’m sure there’s a [heck] of a party going on back home,” he said. “It’s too good. It’s a lot to take in.”

The 35-year-old Dubliner, who finished tied with Garcia with a 7-under 277 and then played the playoff holes (Nos. 1, 16, 17 and 18) in an even-par 15, became just the second Irish major champion in history, joining 1947 British Open winner Fred Daly.

Harrington began the day at 3 under, six strokes behind Garcia, but caught and passed the struggling Spaniard when a 20-foot eagle salvo at the 14th shot him to 9 under. With Garcia one stroke and two groups behind, Harrington needed just four pars to force Garcia to manufacture some unlikely heroics on championship golf’s most treacherous closing stretch. Harrington made the first three pars in sweat-free, tap-in fashion. But with one hand already clasping the claret jug, the Irishman made a series of all-too-familiar mistakes on Carnoustie’s diabolical finishing hole, a par-4 499-yarder.

Conjuring memories of the 1999 British Open, when Frenchman Jean Van de Velde infamously blew a three-stroke lead on the 72nd hole with a career-crippling triple bogey, Harrington blocked his drive at the 18th right into the Barry Burn. The circuitous ditch crosses the landing zones twice each on the 17th and 18th holes. And after finding the initial crossing off the tee, Harrington dropped three and then hit what looked certain to be the defining shot of the tournament.

Still 200 yards short of the green and with Van de Velde’s demons assembled around him, Harrington hit a fat 5-iron that landed 30 yards short of the green and bounded again into the Barry Burn. His face a mask of wide-eyed shock, Harrington collected himself, dropped again, wedged from 50 yards to four feet and cleaned up his double-bogey mess.

As Harrington walked dazed to the scorer’s hut carrying his 3-year-old son, his wife, Caroline, turned to the media and uttered the words everyone else was thinking with a grimace: “We had visions of Van de Velde there, didn’t we?”

In reality, Harrington’s back-to-back visits to the Burn might have been worse. Both the final-round weather and the course setup were considerably easier yesterday than in 1999. And unlike Van de Velde, a career journeyman making a one-time major cameo, Harrington had 13 career victories on both sides of the Atlantic and a slew of strong Slam performances (seven top-10s).

As Garcia came to the final tee 8 under and needing just one more par to claim the jug, the vultures were circling over the scorer’s hut. Make no mistake, had Garcia made par at the last, Harrington would have been roasted by the press and permanently linked to Van de Velde in golf’s catalogue of epic meltdowns.

“If Sergio had parred the last and I did lose, I think I would have struggled to come back out as a competitive golfer. It meant that much to me,” said Harrington, who was keenly aware afterward that his otherwise-sterling 67 was nearly overshadowed by his finishing faceplant. “I never let it sink into me that I had just thrown away the Open Championship on the 18th.”

Thanks to Garcia, he hadn’t.

Sticking with the game plan he had successfully employed all week, the Spaniard chose a 3-iron for his tee shot on the 18th, striping the stress-filled shot down the center of the fairway. Garcia had faltered badly early in the round, posting three sloppy bogeys in a four-hole stretch from No. 5 to No. 8 to yield his lead to the surging field.

But in a major career defined by exactly such swoons, the Spaniard atypically steadied himself. He played the next nine holes in 1 under, carding point-blank birdies at Nos. 13 and 14. And when Harrington followed Argentine rabbit Andres Romero by imploding at the tape it finally seemed like the 27-year-old Spaniard was about to author his major breakthrough.

Fate had other plans.

Still 228 yards to the front of the green and 248 yards to the pin, Garcia’s 3-iron approach to the 72nd hole came up left and short in the front greenside bunker. He then played a nice bunker shot to eight feet. But the par putt to cast off his major monkey wiggled cruelly around the left edge of the cup, sending the green-clad prodigy into head-holding incredulity … and the Open’s four-hole playoff format.

“I still cannot believe that putt did not go in,” said Garcia, who slumped to a closing 73 on the 7,421-yard, par-71 links that included a startling number of grazed cup edges.

Harrington, suddenly given new life, controlled the playoff from the outset, rolling in an 8-foot birdie putt to counter Garcia’s bunker-bound bogey that gave him a two-stroke lead he would never relinquish.

After the two matched pars at the 16th and 17th, Harrington faced his ghosts again at the 18th. This time gifted with a two-shot margin, the Dubliner played safely: hybrid to the center of the fairway, 6-iron over the first burn crossing and short of the second, pitching wedge to 35 feet.

In must-make birdie position, Garcia attacked with a driver and hit a bold 6-iron from 203 yards to 22 feet. Harrington was a bit firm with his long par putt, running it nearly four feet past, leaving the Spaniard one last chance to flip the script with a birdie. But Garcia’s poor luck held as he tickled the lip of the cup on the pro side. The die cast, Harrington stepped up and dead-centered his bogey tiddler to claim the jug by a stroke.

“I had a foot to watch it going in there, and it was just amazing, incredible, to see it drop,” Harrington said, tears in his eyes, of the final putt. “When I turned pro I would’ve settled to be a good journeyman pro. … Obviously, I’ve come a long way.”

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