24 Claret gold

EVEN with three or four holes to go, the destiny of The Open appeared to be at the mercy of the fierce Lancashire coastal winds. And then Padraig Harrington suddenly blew everyone else away.

I still cannot quite believe that, at the end of four days of golf that reduced most of the competitors at Royal Birkdale to exasperation, Harrington managed to win the Claret Jug this evening by four shots. If you only saw the final leaderboard, you would never have guessed that the outcome had been in doubt for so long.

But this was Harrington’s year – again. He follows Tiger Woods in winning back-to-back Open titles, and became the first European to achieve that feat in more than a century. (James Braid, who won the title in 1905 and 1906, was the last.)

Harrington’s final tally of three over par may not sound great, but in a wind so strong that it threatened to drown out the TV commentary at times, it was a near-miracle. Some greater being, must have sprinkled magic dust on the Irishman over the final half-a-dozen holes. With nine to play, he was one shot behind Greg Norman, had just bogeyed three holes in a row and seemed more nervous than a blackbird trapped in a cattery.

And yet it was Norman who dropped shots at key moments, as Harrington responded by turning out the most assured hour of golf seen by anyone at Royal Birkdale this week. His shot to the green on his way to an eagle at the 17th was comfortably the play of the championship – and it came when the pressure on him was arguably at its greatest.

(I wonder if every golfer closing in on a major title at the 18th tee has a little image of Jean van de Velde in mind; the picture of the Frenchman, just needing to play sensibly at the last hole to win the 1999 Open at Carnoustie, going into a stream off the grandstand, then wading in to consider playing out an impossible shot, then losing in a play-off to Paul Lawrie, a Scotsman who came from nowhere to triumph and who has not had a sniff of a major since. I wonder.)

Until that moment, Ian Poulter – he of the pink trousers, the Beckhamesque hair, the flash sunglasses – had looked like sneaking through from the chasing pack to win the trophy. But even if he hadn’t missed decent chances at holes 13, 15 and 17 to post a better score, I doubt if he would have been able to stick with Harrington.

Praise too should go to Norman, who I genuinely didn’t expect to stick with the leaders for as long as he did, even though he went into the final day with a two-shot lead. The Great White Shark is not a full-time golfer these days, as he is more likely to be found playing tennis with new wife Chris Evert.

Yet at 53, he might have become the oldest-ever Open champion with a little more luck, wiser club selection and slightly smarter tactics. Easy to say with hindsight, though – and the fact that he was still in with a genuine shout 68 holes into the championship is something he should be proud of.

I’m no great fan of golf, but it’s impossible not to be captivated by the great drama of The Open – especially when it has as many twists and turns as this year’s championship. Did I really write on here just two days ago that I thought KJ Choi could win his first major? Watching him hit his final tee shot almost out of bounds during a miserable final day showed just how wrong I was, and just how quickly glory can slip away.

However, I did also write that the golfer who held their nerve best at the crucial moment, who refused to buckle in testing conditions, would deserve the Claret Jug. And for that reason alone, Padraig Harrington is a worthy Open champion.


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