Knockout Punch

Aug. 18, 2008
Aug. 18, 2008

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Aug. 18, 2008

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Knockout Punch

Playing his best when the title was up for grabs, ruthless Padraig Harrington decked late-fading Sergio García again, winning the PGA Championship for his second straight major

HOPEFULLY ALLthose golf fans who are suffering through Tiger Woods withdrawal tuned into thefinal round of the PGA Championship. The squeaky brogue has got to go, and hishairline is not receding nearly fast enough, but otherwise Padraig Harringtonhas turned into a dead ringer for Woods. Harrington's victory at the PGA onSunday had all the hallmarks of Tiger's most commanding performances. Let's runthrough the checklist: wide-eyed, teeth-gritting, visceral intensity? Yep.Intrepid shotmaking and outrageously clutch putting? In spades. Utter enjoymentin torturing Sergio García? Definitely.

This is an article from the Aug. 18, 2008 issue

When Woods wassidelined for the year in June due to reconstructive knee surgery, there wasmuch hand-wringing as to whether any player had the gumption to try to fill thevoid. Harrington alone has taken on the challenge, elevating himself from avery good player to a superstar in the span of four weeks. In hellaciousconditions at the British Open, Harrington fought his way to a back-nine 32 tosnatch his second consecutive claret jug. At the 90th PGA Championship, playedon monstrous Oakland Hills outside Detroit, he went 66--66 on the weekend andflat-out stole the tournament from García with four back-nine birdies and long,heartbreaking par saves on the 16th and 18th holes. Harrington, 36, has beenEurope's most accomplished player for most of the 21st century, but in joiningWalter Hagen (1924), Nick Price ('94) and Woods (2000, '06) as the only men togo back-to-back at the British and the PGA, he has usurped Tiger as the playerof the year and solidified his standing as the second-best golfer in the world.The son of a Dublin police officer, Harrington was so uncertain of his golfprospects that he earned an accounting degree before he turned pro so he'd havesomething to fall back on. Now he's getting as greedy as Woods when it comes togolf's grandest prizes.

"I love theidea of the back nine of a major on a Sunday," Harrington said in hischampion's press conference. "I love it so much that I'm actuallydisappointed I'm seven months away from the next major. I love the feeling ofknowing that it's going to come down to the back nine; it's going to come downto who can do it under pressure in the last nine holes."

It wasHarrington's fearlessness that was the difference on Sunday. He began the finalround in a tie for fourth with García, four back of Ben Curtis, who was lookingto build on his surprise victory at the 2003 British Open. It was García whocame out flying, stuffing approach shots on the first two holes to startbirdie-eagle. With a tremendous pitch shot out of the rough on the 6th, Garcíamade another birdie to pull even with Curtis, and the 28-year-old Spaniard justkept coming, producing all-world up-and-downs on 8 and 9 to turn in a sparkling31. Said Harrington, "It really did look like it was going to be hisday."

But Harringtonhas only recently discovered what Woods has long known—the back nine of a majoris a tournament within a tournament, and it requires a different level ofbelief in oneself. Curtis never stopped fighting, but his driver got shaky andhis putter got wobbly as he made five bogeys over his last 11 holes, the lastat the 17th all but sealing his fate. In the group in front of Curtis, atwo-man drama was playing out, and that wasn't good news for García. The lasttime he tangled with Harrington was at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie,where Sergio missed a 10-footer on the 72nd hole that would have won thetournament and then got dusted in the subsequent four-hole playoff. Until lastweek it was the biggest near-miss of a star-crossed career that included eightprevious top five finishes in a major.

HARRINGTON ANDGarcía had shared the dreaded title of best player never to have won a major,but for the past year it has been García's burden alone, which has only playedinto his long-standing martyr complex. His woe-is-me press conference atCarnoustie cemented his rep as a player whose talent is matched only by hispetulance. Some of his comments that day—"I should write a book on how tonot miss a shot in the playoff and shoot one over"—smacked of a playerunable to take ownership of his actions, a weakness Harrington knew he couldexploit at Oakland Hills. Even though he was three shots back heading to thefinal nine, "I felt an edge in terms of my ability to take an opportunitywhen it comes around," Harrington said afterward, choosing his wordscarefully.

A 20-footer onthe 10th hole cut his deficit to two. At the par-5 12th Harrington hit a driveinto the right rough, and his path to the green was blocked by a towering tree.It was a risky shot, but Harrington ripped a five-wood around the tree to justoff the back of the green, setting up another birdie. García, meanwhile, madehis first costly mistake of the round, chunking a chip that forced him tosettle for par.

García was stillclinging to his one-stroke lead when his approach at the 15th appeared to hitthe cup on the fly, only to skitter 15 feet away. From his look of disbeliefGarcía seemed convinced the golf gods were conspiring against him again. He putan ugly stroke on the birdie attempt, and on the par-4 16th he fired at asucker pin cut hard against a pond, pushing his approach into the water. It wasa shocking mistake and, according to a ruthless Harrington, "theopportunity I was looking for." García made bogey, and Harrington willedinto the hole a curling 20-footer for par. Tie game.

At the brutalpar-3 17th Harrington hit a superb shot to 10 feet, but Garcia's response waseven better, leaving him a 4 1/2-footer. Said Harrington, "I knew if Iholed this, I probably would win the PGA. If I missed, Sergio would probablywin the PGA. So it was down to that. And I hit a lovely putt."

García's answerwasn't an awful stroke, but the ball grazed off the cup on the high side.Harrington had his first outright lead. On the 491-yard par-4 18th he droveinto a bunker, fatted a shot into the rough, then played a clutch seven-iron to15 feet. The decisive par putt was never anything but good.

In the lockerroom Paul Azinger was among a handful of players gathered in front of a TVwatching the drama unfold. Next month he will captain the underdog U.S. RyderCup team against a European squad for which Harrington will be the leader andGarcía the leading irritant.

"How aboutthose putts Padraig made?" Azinger said. "Man, he's a toughson-of-a-gun."

How about thatputt García missed at 17? "Same old, same old," said Zinger.

While García'stortured quest to win his first major continues, Harrington has now snaggedthree in the last 13 months. He has no weaknesses in his game or his psyche,and there is no reason to think he won't someday add a U.S. Open and a Mastersto his résumé. Of course first he gets to celebrate this historic win, as hebecame the first European to win the PGA since Tommy Armour in 1930.

On Sunday nightthe party had already begun back home. Behind the 18th green Harrington'scaddie and brother-in-law, Ronan Flood, was working two cellphones. What wasthe word back in Ireland? "They're running out of whiskey!" saidFlood.

Harrington is aself-described teetotaler; his only addiction is working on his game. He andhis wife, Caroline, have two boys: Ciaran, not yet a year old, and Patrick, 5,named for Padraig's late father, who along with nine other strong-backed copsbuilt with shovels the Stackston Golf Course in Dublin, a short, tight trackwhere Padraig honed his game. Last summer the Harringtons took a family trip toDisneyland. "It was the first time in me life I went a week withouttouching a golf club," says Padraig.

Hisfastidiousness extends beyond the golf course. On Sunday evening, while a gentin white gloves positioned the Wannamaker Trophy on the 18th green, Harringtonwas hunched over outside the scorer's hut. In his hand was a crumpled piece ofpaper on which he was making notes for his victory speech. Even after so muchsuccess, this would-be accountant leaves nothing to chance.

García's shot into the water at the 16th was ashocking mistake and, Harrington said, "THE OPPORTUNITY I was lookingfor."



Get the latest news and analysis on next month's Ryder Cup from the team ofexperts at SI and Golf Magazine.


PHOTOPhotograph by Fred VuichCLOSED OUT García (opposite, right) had another major letdown after Harrington dropped his par putt at the 72nd hole.PHOTOPhotograph by Fred Vuich[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Fred VuichWHY ME? García seemed unbeatable for 15 holes, yet on occasion he had the look of a man who couldn't catch a break.TWO PHOTOSPhotograph by Fred Vuich[See caption above]PHOTOSTUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES (HARRINGTON)THREE'S COMPANY Harrington, the first European to win the PGA since 1930, took his third major championship in 13 months.