A New Major Force

Padraig Harrington rallies from three shots down with a final-round 66 to win the PGA Championship, his second consecutive major title.
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2008

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich., Aug. 10 --In conditions of occasional spitting rain and constant gusting winds more akin to golf on Scottish links, reigning British Open champion Padraig Harrington picked up exactly where he had left off at Royal Birkdale last month, and Carnoustie last year, rolling in putt after critical putt down the stretch in the 90th PGA Championship to break Sergio García's heart one more time.

With an 18-foot putt to save one last par at the 72nd hole at Oakland Hills, the 36-year-old Irishman won his second straight major championship of the summer and once again prevented the Spaniard García from finally breaking through for his first major title, extending his streak to 38 straight as a professional without earning one of golf's most prized possessions.

Harrington also became the first European player since Scotland's Tommy Armour in 1930 to win the PGA Championship and its sparkling silver Wanamaker Trophy, and the first European to win consecutive majors in the same year. He earned a champion's check of $1.35 million out of the $7.5 million purse for his third title in the last six major events, though the last two were accomplished in a field without injured Tiger Woods, the No. 1 player in the world and the two-time defending PGA champion.

Still, as recently as Friday night, when he posted a 74 in the second round and was six shots off the 36-hole lead, Harrington said he had simply lost his focus and was suffering from what he described as a lingering emotional "hangover" from his British Open triumph on July 20 at Royal Birkdale. That day in 40-mph winds, he played his final six holes in 4 under par, shot 3-under 32 on the back nine paired with Greg Norman and won his second straight Claret Jug by three shots.

"This was a different win than Birkdale," Harrington said Sunday night after his 3-under total of 277. "I was very comfortable with my game there. Here that wasn't the case. I wasn't happy with the way I was swinging. Something had me a little off. Once I holed a few putts, it was a question of adrenaline keeping me focused, keeping me pushing ahead."

On this marathon final day, with winds gusting to 30 mph, Harrington was 5 over when he came to the ninth hole at 7:15 a.m. to complete the final 10 holes of his rain-delayed third round. He caught fire on his morning back nine with a run of four straight birdies for a third-round 66 that left him three shots behind 54-hole leader Ben Curtis when he teed off on his final 18 holes at 2 p.m. Harrington was still three behind playing partner García when they made the turn to the final nine.

"The only thing I know from experience is that no one goes without making a mistake in a major," Harrington said. "I knew if I could hang in there, I would get my opportunity, and if it happened, I would take the opportunity."

Those opportunities came quickly, when he birdied three of his first four holes on that side. And down the stretch, with thousands all around, he made three straight putts: 18 feet for par at the 16th, 10 feet for birdie at the 17th and that last 18-footer for par at the 18th hole to finally seize the day. All those putts led to a second straight round of 66 --including another 32 on the back nine -- and a two-shot victory over García (68) and Curtis (71), the 2003 British Open winner who tied for second place.

In 2007, García had a chance to win the British Open at Carnoustie on the 72nd hole, but missed a 14-foot putt that grazed the left side of the cup and lipped out. He then lost by a shot to Harrington in a four-hole aggregate playoff. Here at Oakland Hills, after Harrington made his 10-foot birdie putt at the 17th, García had a five-footer for birdie himself that would have kept him tied for the lead.

"I knew if I holed this putt, I win the PGA," Harrington said. "If I miss, Sergio wins the PGA."

García said he thought he hit a decent putt, and once again it caught the left edge and stayed out, giving Harrington a one-shot lead as they stepped to the 18th tee to play the hardest hole on the toughest golf course many players in the field said they had ever seen.

Both men hit drives that faded to the right on the 498-yard par 4, where only one birdie was made all day. Harrington was in a fairway bunker, and his second shot caught a break when he got a decent lie in the rough down the right side. García also had a favorable lie for his second shot from the right rough, but a well-struck 5-wood nevertheless fell a yard short of the green. Instead, the ball hit the front face of a greenside bunker and rolled back down.

Harrington managed to get his third-shot 7-iron onto the green, 18 feet from the cup. García blasted out of the bunker to within 12 feet. But Harrington, a scrambling wizard all day with four sand saves on his card, ended the drama when he found a way to ram that one last putt in the center of the cup, accompanied by a mighty roar.

García, who had to play 35 holes Sunday, seemed to take this latest defeat far better than he did his loss at Carnoustie, when he moaned incessantly about getting so many bad breaks.

"I shot 69-68 on a tough Sunday at a major," he said. "So I'm pretty happy about that. Unfortunately I obviously came up a little bit short. The only thing I can do now is go home with my head up high and keep working on it. . . . I felt like I gave it my best. I felt like I responded well. He was obviously very good on the back nine, and things just happened his way."

Still, after hitting a 6-iron into the water at the 406-yard 16th from the middle of the fairway for an untimely bogey, García surely responded at the 17th when both men were tied with Curtis, a hole behind them in the final group, at 2 under. Harrington hit a 5-iron at the 238-yard 17th that left him with a 10-foot birdie putt. But García responded like a champion, smacking his 5-iron shot inside his playing partner's ball to within five feet.

"I knew I had to put a good swing there," García said. "I hit a very nice shot and then he holed a putt. I feel like I hit a good putt. I hit it left edge and it just didn't break and it lipped out on the left. . . . I feel like I've played well enough to win more than two majors throughout my career. Unfortunately it hasn't happened. But that doesn't mean I'm not on the right track."

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