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Knockout Punch
August 18, 2008
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
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August 18, 2008

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

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

When Woods was sidelined for the year in June due to reconstructive knee surgery, there was much hand-wringing as to whether any player had the gumption to try to fill the void. Harrington alone has taken on the challenge, elevating himself from a very good player to a superstar in the span of four weeks. In hellacious conditions at the British Open, Harrington fought his way to a back-nine 32 to snatch his second consecutive claret jug. At the 90th PGA Championship, played on monstrous Oakland Hills outside Detroit, he went 66--66 on the weekend and flat-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 been Europe's most accomplished player for most of the 21st century, but in joining Walter Hagen (1924), Nick Price ('94) and Woods (2000, '06) as the only men to go back-to-back at the British and the PGA, he has usurped Tiger as the player of 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 golf prospects that he earned an accounting degree before he turned pro so he'd have something to fall back on. Now he's getting as greedy as Woods when it comes to golf's grandest prizes.

"I love the idea of the back nine of a major on a Sunday," Harrington said in his champion's press conference. "I love it so much that I'm actually disappointed I'm seven months away from the next major. I love the feeling of knowing that it's going to come down to the back nine; it's going to come down to who can do it under pressure in the last nine holes."

It was Harrington's fearlessness that was the difference on Sunday. He began the final round in a tie for fourth with García, four back of Ben Curtis, who was looking to build on his surprise victory at the 2003 British Open. It was García who came out flying, stuffing approach shots on the first two holes to start birdie-eagle. With a tremendous pitch shot out of the rough on the 6th, García made another birdie to pull even with Curtis, and the 28-year-old Spaniard just kept coming, producing all-world up-and-downs on 8 and 9 to turn in a sparkling 31. Said Harrington, "It really did look like it was going to be his day."

But Harrington has only recently discovered what Woods has long known—the back nine of a major is a tournament within a tournament, and it requires a different level of belief in oneself. Curtis never stopped fighting, but his driver got shaky and his putter got wobbly as he made five bogeys over his last 11 holes, the last at the 17th all but sealing his fate. In the group in front of Curtis, a two-man drama was playing out, and that wasn't good news for García. The last time 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 the tournament and then got dusted in the subsequent four-hole playoff. Until last week it was the biggest near-miss of a star-crossed career that included eight previous top five finishes in a major.

HARRINGTON AND García 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 played into his long-standing martyr complex. His woe-is-me press conference at Carnoustie cemented his rep as a player whose talent is matched only by his petulance. Some of his comments that day—"I should write a book on how to not miss a shot in the playoff and shoot one over"—smacked of a player unable to take ownership of his actions, a weakness Harrington knew he could exploit at Oakland Hills. Even though he was three shots back heading to the final nine, "I felt an edge in terms of my ability to take an opportunity when it comes around," Harrington said afterward, choosing his words carefully.

A 20-footer on the 10th hole cut his deficit to two. At the par-5 12th Harrington hit a drive into 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 just off the back of the green, setting up another birdie. García, meanwhile, made his first costly mistake of the round, chunking a chip that forced him to settle for par.

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

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

García's answer wasn'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 drove into a bunker, fatted a shot into the rough, then played a clutch seven-iron to 15 feet. The decisive par putt was never anything but good.

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