- The Washington Times - Monday, July 21, 2008

Irish encore. A year after backing into the British Open title, Padraig Harrington back-nined the field at Royal Birkdale, collecting a second consecutive claret jug Sunday on the strength of the most impressive stretch-run performance in recent Grand Slam history.

“This time around, it was harder work during the day, but it was a bit more deserved,” the 36-year-old Dubliner said after charging home in 32 strokes to notch a four-shot victory over Ian Poulter. “There’s a bit more satisfaction in this one.”

Harrington, who finished with a 3-over 283, made the turn 3 over for the day and 7 over for the tournament, trailing sentimental favorite Greg Norman by a stroke. Even though officials from the Royal & Ancient shortened the par-70 links to a shade under 7,000 yards and left green mower heights absurdly high in an attempt to combat winds that gusted up to 40 mph, the event’s final five pairings staggered through the opening nine in a collective 27 over.

But with the entire field hemorrhaging strokes, something odd happened on the back nine of a Brutish Open seemingly destined to go to the man with the tournament’s best tourniquet. Harrington turned a would-be exercise in attrition into an exhibition in links artistry.

Posting the best final nine by a major champion since Phil Mickelson closed with a 31 to win the 2004 Masters, Harrington buried Norman and the rest of the field at the 137th British Open in a hole far deeper than any of Birkdale’s pot bunkers.

Sunday’s defining, climactic kill shot came at the par-5 17th, where Harrington followed a conservative 3-wood off the tee with a stunner from the fairway with the same club. Leading Poulter by two strokes and Norman by three, Harrington hit a laser fade from 285 yards into a right-to-left gale that cleared the green-front cross bunker by three yards, took a huge hop onto the top shelf of the severe green and then trundled slowly to a stop within three feet of the pin.

As Grand Slam door-slammers go, it was the shot of the century, barely edging Shaun Micheel’s approach on the 72nd hole of the 2003 PGA Championship.

“It was a bit silly that it came off quite that well - to stone dead,” said Harrington, who nudged in the eagle putt to take a four-stroke lead to the 18th tee. “It was just my day, I guess.”

Once again it wasn’t Norman’s, though Sunday’s 77 doesn’t deserve a place on the Aussie’s headstone next to his closing 78 at Augusta National in 1996. The average score among Sunday’s final five pairings was 75.9, making the Shark’s closing swoon relatively mild by his standards. Given his suspect ball-striking (he hit just five greens during the finale), the 53-year-old Norman actually did quite well to card 77 in the diabolically blustery conditions.

“I really don’t feel that bad,” said Norman, now 1-for-8 in consummating 54-hole leads in majors. “I can walk away from here feeling good. No question about that. Obviously, I wanted to walk away making a little history, but that didn’t happen. It didn’t go my way, but, hey, Padraig played brilliantly, and let’s not let anything overshadow that. He finished in style.”

Given the conditions, he finished in more impressive style than anyone this decade. His closing 69 was the only sub-par score among the last five pairings. And his inward 32 might not have equaled Mickelson’s 31 at the 2004 Masters on the scorecard, but it was considerably better on the degree-of-difficulty scale.

The Shark is correct. Norman didn’t give away the 137th Open. Harrington took it.

“The way I finished it was special,” said Harrington, now one seven players to repeat as the British Open champion since World War II. “Not too many guys have won it back to back, and you’re in a real special club when you’ve got two majors.”

The victory continues an odd trend in a Slam season defined by long-shot winners. First, Trevor Immelman wins the Masters four months after having a tumor removed from his back. Then Tiger Woods gimps to victory with a broken leg and no knee cartilage at Torrey Pines. And finally, Harrington walks away with the claret jug after nearly breaking his right wrist during a training session last week. If the Irishman hadn’t been defending, he conceded he wouldn’t have even turned up to play at Birkdale.

Perhaps the first player to drive his car into a ditch should be installed as the favorite for next month’s PGA Championship at Oakland Hills. Airbags will be deploying all over Orlando in the coming weeks.

Actually, Anthony Kim is worth nominating for the favorite’s honor in Detroit. The 23-year-old supernova finished tied for seventh in his first British Open start in awful conditions. Kim led the field in greens in regulation and might have pushed Harrington had he not finished next-to-last in putting.

Norman carried the marquee banner for golf in Tiger’s absence at Birkdale; look for Kim to pick it up as the headline monster at Oakland Hills.

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