In telling you that Padraig Harrington’s second to the seventeeth hole in the final round of this year’s British Open at Royal Birkdale eclipsed even Tiger Woods’ remarkable chip-in on the sixteenth at Augusta in 2005, I’m setting the bar high, but there’s no doubt in my mind.
Leading by two strokes from Greg Norman and Ian Poulter with two holes to play, Harrington could have been forgiven for playing conservatively.
Certainly, in the commentary box there was some concern when he pulled a five wood from his bag. Having hit the penultimate fairway with that club from the tee, surely now he should go for position with an iron, and play safely for a five?
That’s what the pundits always say. Take as many strokes as you need.
Norman smashed a huge drive off the tee, leaving him an excellent birdie chance to cut into Harrington’s lead, and the faint scent of an eagle to draw level. Suddenly, playing short didn’t seem safe at all.
Up ahead, the dangerous eighteenth was definitely not the kind of hole to yield an easy par four to win the British Open. So with 249 yards to go on the seventeeth, and in a vicious left to right crosswind, out came the five wood.
The Harrington of 2007 won despite a six at the 72nd hole. But on Sunday, that man was nowhere to be seen. This was fearless, attacking play to define a great of the game. Such is the change that a year as British Open champion brings.
Well struck and aimed high through the breeze towards the grandstand to the left of the green, Harrington’s ball flew long enough to carry the difficult bunker 30 yards short of the putting surface. Drifting gracefully to the right on the wind, it landed safely on the apron, bounced obligingly forwards and climbed casually on to the top tier before rolling just four feet from the hole.
Now he needed only to find the final fairway to claim the claret jug for another year. And Pod finished off in style, a masterful second shot threatening the flag on the last and setting up the easiest of pars. Victory was his.
It was the finest British Open I have ever had the pleasure to watch. Harrington’s homeward nine of 32 under pressure must rank as one of the best of all time, and there was much more to savour.
The thrill of seeing Greg Norman emerge from his semi-retirement and recent wedding to Chris Evert to glimpse one more trophy for the game fishing net.
KJ Choi was almost successful in bringing Korea and Asia their first major win. And with Ian Poulter as runner-up and Chris Wood as leading amateur, the supporting parts of this drama were both colourfully and promisingly filled.
But above all this year, it was the weather which made the Open Championship. How many years have we seen British Opens played out on tranquil July days?
Across hot sunny weeks, when the fire of the links was doused by warm sunshine and the true difficulty of our top British courses faded to a frazzled and distant memory. Times when sparse dried-out rough and fast-running fairways left the toughest of links almost defenceless. Disappointingly marvellous weather.
Suddenly this was a sport of survival, where courage, endurance and sheer adaptability came to the fore.
This truly was golf, as she was meant to be played.
Not on some manufactured landscape. Not cosily comfortable. Golf not calculatingly plotted across predictably soft parkland on a benign, lazy day.
But golf across the loneliest of windswept wildernesses, where a man must fight and carve out his path with just the howling of the wind and the lashing of the rain for company, as the cries of thirty thousand bedraggled but enthralled spectators vanish thinly above the dunes.
Harrington’s five wood will ring out across years, but I’ll remember another shot from the gusts of Saturday’s round. On the type of afternoon where the yardage chart becomes useless, and you have to rely on feel and guts alone.
A high-tariff shot into Birkdale’s tightly-bunkered greens, surrounded by those monstrous traps half as deep as a house.
Norman saw it differently. He chose a five iron. From the back foot, with a short swing and panache, he pulled out a perfect punch shot into the teeth of the wind. Flying no more than head high, straight for the flag to finish right by the hole.
It was the classically inventive stroke which a true links should always demand.
I played Royal Birkdale once, a long time ago. We had a great girl golfer in our team that year, who was friends with the Pro. With his sadistic encouragement, we set out to play the links from the Open tees on a blustery March day. In weather that doesn’t often feature in the Championship script.
I hacked my way to a miserable score.
Only an unlikely birdie at Palmer’s famous sixteenth hole and two closing fives averted abject despair. Little did I expect my 88 to take the money, from all of our group.
Three Royal Birkdale Opens since then have been won at scores well under par. Many times, I’ve thought about that round. I’d love to go back there, to take on the course in fine weather. And play it properly.
But this week, at last I thought differently. Because in the wind and the rain, Birkdale showed all its teeth bared. The course presented a true test for the world’s greatest – a demanding, unforgiving links in the stiffest of conditions.
157. When Irish eyes are smiling – Harrington wins the British Open
125. The green and the gold – 2006 Ryder Cup
99. One over Strath
66. A dream from Detroit – 2004 Ryder Cup
62. On the links