Overcoming challenging conditions, an injured wrist, an ageing Greg Norman and a flying Ian Poulter, Padraig Harrington successfully defended his Open Championship title at Royal Birkdale.
Padraig battles The Shark: The 2008 Open Championship
Ask people to name a golfing fairytale that nearly came true and most will cite 59-year-old Tom Watson’s agonising play-off loss at Turnberry in 2009. But that monumental effort eclipsed a romantic story of so near and yet so far just a year older.
At Royal Birkdale in 2008 Greg Norman, aged 53 and with just a few recent competitive rounds under his belt, came within nine holes of lifting The Claret Jug for a third time. It took the sparkling play of a battling Irishman to deny the Great White Shark.
When Padraig Harrington won the 2007 Open, his career changed. His reputation was transformed from Mr Consistent on the European Tour into a world beater.
A proven links specialist and defending champion, Harrington was a favourite in the lead-up to Royal Birkdale, particularly with Tiger Woods out through injury.
But Padraig was to suffer injury concerns of his own. On the Saturday prior to the championship he hurt his right wrist, and after abandoning a Wednesday practice round, he was not confident he could physically complete 72 holes. He would manage it in some style.
Day one at Birkdale got underway in appalling conditions. Strong wind propelled sheets of rain horizontally across the links with temperatures more akin to January than July.
The first group out carded 78 (Craig Parry), 80 (Lucas Glover) and 82 (Simon Dyson). Many of the early starters felt the course had been set up too sternly given the forecast. “You could put a 4-handicapper out there and he’d shoot over 100,” said an angry Dyson after his round.
The conditions proved too much for one former champion. Sandy Lyle was 11 over through ten holes when he walked off the course, citing cold fingers and rain-spattered glasses for his withdrawal. The Scot, rightly, received some strong criticism from the press.
Another previous winner proved it could be done. Playing in the worst of the weather, 58-year-old Tom Watson carded an excellent 74. Justin Rose asked the American on the course if it was the worst he’d played in. “Nope, first round at Muirfield in 1980,” he replied. “What did you shoot then?” Rose asked. “68.”
Despite his battling performance, Watson wasn’t to be the story of this Open – he’d have to wait a year. It was another veteran who’d provide the headlines at Birkdale.
Norman had won The Open twice before – in 1986 and again in 1993. His record in the event was impressive, having posted seven further top tens. But the last of those was in 1999 and the 53-year-old hadn’t competed in a Major Championship for three years.
In fact, he’d barely been playing at all. A series of injuries and surgery on his knees had kept him away from the game and he’d only played three Champions Tour events since turning 50.
But, in late 2007, The Shark announced his engagement to former tennis star Chris Evert. The 18-time Grand Slam champion helped rekindle his interest in playing at the top level, and in May 2008 he entered the Senior PGA Championship at Oak Hill.
He surprised himself by finishing in a tie for 6th place. It was a pretty decent result for someone who hadn’t played a competitive round at the top level since 2005. The performance encouraged Norman to try again and he decided to enter the Senior Open Championship at Royal Troon.
He felt he needed a bit more practice to prepare, though, and there was an obvious way to get some. As a past champion he could enter The Open and get a couple of rounds on the links. Ostensibly he had no expectations heading into Birkdale but perhaps, as a former World No.1 – a position he held for a total of 331 weeks – a small part of him felt he could put in a reasonable showing.
As an afternoon starter, Norman had the benefit of better weather on day one. He made the most of it, playing some superb golf to shoot a solid, level-par 70. The Australian appeared serenely calm as he plotted his way around the Birkdale links.
“You have to be patient and I was happy to post a good score,” he said. “I’m excited but I’m going to be low-key about it all.”
Just one shot off the lead, Norman was in prime position, but few truly believed he would be a threat come the weekend. The general consensus in the press tent was that he’d come back to earth the following day.
Tied for the lead after day one were Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell and Rocco Mediate of the USA. McDowell had won the previous week’s Scottish Open at Loch Lomond, while Mediate continued his incredible Major form – the 45-year-old had lost an epic play-off with Tiger Woods for the US Open the previous month.
Harrington’s 74 was rather good considering he endured the bad weather and looked decidedly nervous about his wrist every time he set up to the ball. There was a fine 72 from Ian Poulter, also playing in the worst of the weather, and the same number for KJ Choi.
As the weather eased slightly on Friday, the scoring improved. Camilo Villegas proved low rounds were out there as he romped home with a 65, including five straight birdies to finish.
Choi made four birdies and just one bogey as he carded a 67 – enough to take the outright lead on one under. The mild-mannered South Korean showed the sort of patient, strategic approach tough links golf demands.
Norman was similarly composed as he kept the dream alive with another 70. He clearly enjoyed every minute of it and was quick to pour scorn on those younger players complaining the challenge was too severe.
“I think this is the best Open I’ve played in,” he said. “Maybe there are young players who haven’t experienced these types of conditions before; they’re learning a new aspect of the game.”
Someone else relishing the test was Harrington. The Irishman moved right into the mix with a 68, completed with the steely look of a man determined not to give up his title.
“I battled hard,” he said. “I want the weather to be difficult tomorrow. I’m ready for it. Bring it on.”
He got his wish. The wind whipped up across the Lancashire coast on Saturday and it became something of a fight for survival. There were nine rounds over 80 and nobody broke par.
Harrington was playing with 2001 winner David Duval, who had surprised many in reaching the halfway stage at two over. The American had lost his form completely and hadn’t even played in a Major since the 2006 Open Championship.
Unfortunately, Double D came back to reality in the howling winds on Saturday – he carded an 83. Harrington fared far better than his partner. He posted a gritty 72 to complete 54 holes on four-over-par.
Norman was also battling against the elements. Once again he displayed the sort of skill and imagination that saw him rule the golfing world in the late 80s and early 90s. On the 5th, with just 120 yards left but straight into the wind, he pulled out a 5-iron and struck a shot that never rose more than 15 feet from the ground. It stopped almost immediately on the putting surface. It was a simply superb stroke.
When Norman reached the 18th green, he received a standing ovation from the crowd and was visibly moved. “I have to take this in my stride,” he said. “I have to make sure I don’t get too caught up in the moment.”
The 53-year-old led The Open by two strokes with a round to play. With so many Major heartaches in his locker, would there be another ‘oh so close’ story to tell, or was this going to be the most emotional and romantic of Open tales?
Going into Sunday it was Norman by two from Harrington and Choi. Poulter was six back in a tie with five others, including the young amateur Chris Wood, who would go on to take the Silver Medal.
Norman got off to a terrible start in the final round with three straight bogeys and another dropped shot at the 6th. As Harrington opened with six pars, The Shark’s two-shot lead became a two-shot deficit. That was surely that: another final-round collapse from the great Australian.
Not quite. Harrington suffered a mini-crisis of his own before the turn. Three bogeys handed the lead back to Norman with nine to play. The Australian was six over and one ahead.
The defending champion knuckled down, though, and produced one of the finest nine holes in Open history. Three straight pars from the 10th steadied the ship and the Irishman then went into overdrive.
Birdies at the 13th and 15th put him three clear of Norman. The Australian was pretty much spent, but Harrington was still under pressure because of a sterling run from Poulter.
The Englishman had gone into Ryder Cup mode on the back nine and raced home in 34 to set a clubhouse total of seven-over-par. It looked a strong number.
Still, Harrington held a two-shot advantage as he and Norman reached the 17th. After a good drive, the Irishman considered his second to the par 5. Protecting a lead, he would surely lay-up to a favourite distance, taking a disaster out of the equation.
When Harrington reached for a wood, there was a collective intake of breath and Norman whispered to his caddy, “We’re still in this.”
But Harrington was in full flight and never doubted his ability. He let rip and produced one of the finest shots of all time, a perfect 5-wood that faded slightly and chased up the green to settle feet from the cup.
When he rolled in the eagle putt, Norman was done and Poulter, who had been hitting shots on the practice ground, could put his clubs away. Harrington had added an exclamation mark to his victory. He was the Champion Golfer for a second year running.
Norman couldn’t keep the magic going in the final round, but those who claimed he’d blown it did him a disservice. This was a man who had barely played over the last few seasons. Going into the championship, nobody would have believed he’d have led with nine holes to play. Finishing in a tie for third with Henrik Stenson was a fabulous achievement.
Poulter was second and was left to wonder what if? Why couldn’t he find the will to succeed he displayed on that final nine earlier in the tournament?
In a humble speech, Harrington summed up his week: “I’ve had a great time in Liverpool,” he said. “Yesterday, after I double-bogeyed the 12th, a fella tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘don’t worry, I have to go back to being a plumber on Monday’.”
That short anecdote typifies Harrington. He might be a professional golfer with a burning desire to excel at his chosen sport, but he also has the nous to be able to put the game into perspective. It’s been a key to his success.