SOUTHPORT, England (AP)—Padraig Harrington and Greg Norman strolled away from the 18th green at Royal Birkdale, all even at two major championships apiece.
Then, they headed off in different directions.
Harrington had to reclaim the claret jug and ponder his growing stature within the sport. He’s gone back-to-back in the British Open, but doesn’t intend to stop there.
“I didn’t realize I’d get another major so quickly,” the Irishman said Sunday evening, savoring a four-stroke victory in golf’s oldest championship.
But, he was quick to add, “I WAS confident it would happen again.”
Norman never saw this one coming. At 53, he got an improbable chance to rekindle the glory that supposedly passed him by years ago. Now, he can get back to his honeymoon with tennis great Chris Evert and return to being a part-time hacker.
Of course, it sure would have been nice to rewrite the ending to his underachieving legacy.
“I can walk away from here being disappointed,” Norman said, having shot a 7-over 77 to toss away a two-shot lead in the final round. “But I can walk away from here with my head held high.”
While Norman was fading away, Harrington smashed a pair of fairway metals into the par 5s that carried him to a 32 on the back nine of blustery Royal Birkdale and made him Europe’s first player in more than a century to win the Open two years in a row.
“Obviously, winning a major puts you in a special club,” said Harrington, who closed like a champion with a 69 to win by four shots over Ian Poulter, with Norman another stroke back. “Winning two of them puts you in a new club altogether.”
Harrington moved up to No. 3 in the world rankings, his highest spot, trailing only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. It’s lofty company, but he doesn’t feel out of place.
One of the hardest workers on tour, he’s crafted a schedule that focuses mainly on the majors. He’d like to contend in half of those each year, “Then all you need to do is maybe hit one out of four of those and you’re winning one every second year. That’s a pretty high rate for us mere mortals.”
By mere mortals, Harrington was referring to everyone not named Tiger. Woods, who sat out the Open to recover from knee surgery, is in a league of his own. But the likable Irishman is sure feeling more confident about his place in the second flight.
“I’ve matured as a player,” Harrington said. “I trust my game more, and I definitely have more confidence in my swing.”
Playing in the final group with Norman, Harrington certainly understood the significance of what the Shark was trying to accomplish. He won the Open twice in his prime, at Turnberry in 1986 and Royal St. George’s in ‘93, but it had been a decade since his last victory. He would have easily been the oldest major winner, besting the record set by 48-year-old Julius Boros at the 1968 PGA Championship.
Throw into the mix that Norman is best remembered as the worst closer in major tournament history, a player of enormous talent who never figured out how to finish things off. Sunday was the eighth time he’s gone to the final round with a lead.
He’s now 1-7.
“I did say to him coming down 18 that I was sorry it wasn’t his story that was going to be told,” Harrington said. “But I wanted to win myself. In this game, you have to take your chances when you get them.”
Especially when you’re playing with an ailing wrist and weren’t even sure you’d be able to finish the tournament, much less win it.
Harrington shook off the pain from a practice mishap the previous weekend and came through with the shot of his life at the par-5 17th. After teeing off with a 5-wood, he was still 249 yards from the hole. He could have played it safe, but that might have given Norman—still clinging to hope—the possibility of a two-shot swing with an eagle.
Harrington again went with the 5-wood, his favorite club in the bag, and took aim at a funky green that looks as if it might have been borrowed from a putt-putt course. He rocketed a low shot that stayed below the howling gusts, the ball skidding onto the green and rolling right up next to the flag. All he had to do was knock in a 5-foot putt for an eagle of his own.
Game, set, match.
That left Harrington with a nice, leisurely stroll up the 18th green—a striking contrast to his nerve-racking walk on the 72nd hole a year ago at Carnoustie, where he dunked two balls in the Barry Burn and set himself up to join Jean Van de Velde in the chokers hall of fame.
But Sergio Garcia missed a 10-foot putt for the win. Harrington got another chance in a playoff. And it was Harrington, not the Spaniard, who walked off with his first major title.
At Royal Birkdale, Harrington had no such worries.
“It’s always nice to know you have no more work to do, it’s all finished,” Harrington said. “There’s no more comfortable feeling and more pleasurable feeling than having a four-shot lead and knowing nothing can go wrong.”
Everything went wrong for Norman, who started his round with three straight bogeys. Still, he managed to make the turn with a one-shot lead, taking advantage when Harrington bogeyed seven, eight and nine.
But there was never any sense the Shark could actually pull it off. He was spraying his ball all over the course, hitting as many shots out of the prickly rough as he did off the fairway.
Harrington steadied himself and played brilliantly on the back nine. Norman kept making bogeys and gave the lead right back. The only other serious contender was Poulter, the Englishman with the unique tastes in grooming and fashion.
With his spiked hair and peach-colored pants, he actually claimed a share of the lead with a dramatic birdie putt at 16, sparking a roar from the home fans that could be heard all the way to Liverpool. But Poulter three-putted for par at 17 to finish off his hopes, especially when Harrington played the last six holes at 4 under.
“I’ve done my best, and it hasn’t been quite good enough,” Poulter said. “But I’ll be back for lots more of this. It’s a nice roller-coaster ride.”
Norman sounds as though he’ll be getting off it now. Married to Evert less than a month, he’s enjoying a more balanced life that mixes in a little golf with a lot of everything else.
Even though his third-place finish gives him a spot at the 2009 Masters, he’s not committed to taking it.
“Time out, OK?” Norman said. “I’ve got a lot of water to go over the dam to get to that.”