- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — There’s no longer any question who has stepped to the fore in the absence of world No. 1 Tiger Woods.

Padraig Harrington has spent the last month providing one of the most emphatic answers in the game’s history.

The 36-year-old Dubliner completed a rare British Open-PGA Championship double Sunday at Oakland Hills, closing with three consecutive clutch putts from double-digit distances to finish at 3 under and claim the Wanamaker Trophy by two strokes over Sergio Garcia and Ben Curtis.

“I’m delighted obviously,” said Harrington, who used just 11 putts over the final nine holes to collect his third major title and cement his statue in the game’s hall of fame. “This was a different kind of win [than last month’s victory at Royal Birkdale]. I was very comfortable with my game at the British Open. This week, I haven’t been anywhere near as confident. The game just wasn’t as solid as it was at Birkdale. But I stuck in there and holed some putts at the right times.”

The Irishman spent the first three days of the 90th PGA Championship lamenting his lack of focus in the aftermath of his conquest at blustery Birkdale. But there was nothing wrong with his concentration in Sunday’s crucible.

Scorching the daunting Motown Monster like no player in history, Harrington played the final nine holes of his weather-delayed third round in 32 strokes Sunday morning and then blitzed the 7,395-yard, par-70 beast with a similarly sublime 66 in the finale. He posted an unthinkable 10 birdies in his 27 Sunday holes on a course that all week behaved more like a merciless U.S. Open creation than a more forgiving PGA Championship setup.

And when the pressure escalated to Tums-chomping levels during a scintillating, back-nine battle with Garcia and Curtis, Harrington was the only man who never faltered. A wide-eyed, signature glare permanently pasted on his face, Harrington delivered a performance reminiscent of Tiger with his putter, seemingly staring one huge putt after another into the cup down the stretch.

“Sometimes when your eye hones in and you see the putts, you have a way of just almost willing them in. I wasn’t going to allow myself to miss [down the stretch],” Harrington said after breaking Europe’s 77-year drought in the PGA Championship.

For the second time in 13 months, the primary victim of Harrington’s heroics was Garcia, the 28-year-old Spaniard who seems destined to be a career major bridesmaid. When Harrington carded consecutive birdies at Nos. 12 and 13 to draw even with Garcia at 3 under, the situation engineered flashbacks to last year’s British Open, when Harrington outdueled Garcia in a four-hole playoff at Carnoustie. This virtual playoff would last five holes and prove far more dramatic and entertaining.

Harrington stumbled slightly with a bogey at the 14th, but Garcia gave the stroke back when he dunked his second into the lake at the treacherous 16th. It was there that the Dubliner would begin his remarkable putting run, holing a 20-foot par putt to send the two to the par-3 17th deadlocked at 2 under.

Both challengers played majestic 5-irons on the 205-yard hole. Harrington led with a high fade to 10 feet, and Garcia answered with a towering approach to four feet.

“I had the opportunity to get the ball in first,” Harrington said. “I knew if I made it, I would probably win the championship. If I missed it, Sergio would probably win. It was down to that.”

Harrington dead-centered his putt. And with an army of his major putting nightmares swirling around him in the Michigan breeze, Garcia lipped out on the low side.

Both players struggled at the par-4 18th, which all week played as the hardest hole on the property and among the toughest finishers in major history. After missing the fairway right, Garcia hit a bold cut 5-wood into the wind from a dodgy stance in the rough that fell just short in the left-front greenside bunker. Harrington also missed the fairway right off the tee and was forced to lay up. His third shot from 143 yards landed 15 feet right of the pin. Garcia splashed out to 10 feet, and again the fate of the Wanamaker Trophy rested on Harrington’s blade.

And again he delivered. The testy double-breaker tumbled in on the right edge to render Garcia’s par bid meaningless.

“To shoot 69-68 on the last two rounds at a major on a course like this, I think it’s pretty positive,” said Garcia, who now has 14 top-10 finishes without a victory in the majors. “I definitely feel like I played good enough to win. But unfortunately it didn’t happen.”

What did transpire was that the relentless Harrington willed his way to the winner’s circle for the third time in the last six majors. That’s Tiger-style dominance. In fact, Harrington’s double makes him the first European since the evolution of the Masters (1934) to win consecutive majors. And it makes him just the third player in the Tiger era to accomplish the feat; Harrington joins Woods and Phil Mickelson in that accomplishment category.

While Harrington’s victories in the season’s final two majors might not have saved the TV ratings, they certainly proved golf’s talent pool runs deep enough to thrive in Tiger’s absence. Golf has discovered a new superstar with Woods away. And it’s likely that newly minted stalwart will wind up swiping player of the year honors from the game’s convalescing demigod.

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