AS the R&A declared war on slow play at The Open yesterday, imposing a one stroke penalty on Claret Jug contender Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, Sergio Garcia fired a little pot shot of his own at Padraig Harrington.
Garcia and Harrington have history, adding spice to their third round pairing at Muirfield … and there was no mistaking Garcia’s agitation at the pace of the Irishman’s play as the game unfolded.
He made his feelings plain to an R&A rules official after watching Harrington once again give studied consideration to his two putts for par at 14, minutes after both players were told they’d been taken off the clock.
As they walked to the next tee, Garcia remarked to the official: “As soon as you tell him, it’s the automatic handbrake!”
The Spaniard emphasised his words by twice pulling-up an imaginary handbrake with his right hand. The rules official replied: “you’re right” … an honest response, no doubt, but a little indiscreet in the circumstances.
Harrington, yet to leave the green, didn’t hear this exchange. He’d enough on his plate anyway during a grim round of six-over par 77 in which he failed to polish off even one birdie with his new belly putter.
As the Dubliner slumped into a share of 74th on 12-over, Garcia impressively compiled the joint low-round of the third day, a 68, which lifted him to within six shots of the lead on three-over par.
Nobly, these two European team colleagues have kept their antipathy to themselves since burying the hatchet during run-up to the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla.
That was six weeks after Harrington had inflicted a second painful Major Championship defeat on Garcia in 13 months at the climax to the 2008 US PGA.
Though the Spaniard had to apologise in public and private to Tiger Woods for a distasteful and mildly-racist remark about serving fried chicken to the World No 1 if he came do dinner during last month’s US Open at Merion, Garcia was the soul of discretion after his third round at Muirfield.
Asked about playing for two holes on the clock, he admitted: “Well, I felt like I was rushing quite a lot. I mean, I probably played out of position two or three times, when it wasn’t even my turn, to try to catch up.”
At one time, Garcia headed for the seventh tee before Harrington holed-out on six. He had his ball teed-up and was ready to go before the Dubliner arrived on the teeing ground.
Still, Garcia offered no criticism of the pace of Harrington’s play, except to say: “I think it’s difficult when you’re on the clock. It’s difficult with anybody that is struggling because it’s always going to take a little bit more time and it feels like you have to make up for that time a little bit.
“So I think we tried as hard as we could, both of us. We managed to get back on time. I think it was on the 14th so, you know, the last four or five holes were a little bit better.”
The R&A’s decision to get-tough on slow play code during the third round resulted in many groups being placed on the clock, including that of Lee Westwood and Tiger Woods and the final pair on the course, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Henrik Stenson.
Yet just one stoke penalty was given, Matsuyama being docked a shot for recording a second ‘bad time’ in two holes when he took two minutes and 12 seconds to play a tricky lay-up from a difficult lie in the crowd.
“It was ridiculous to penalise him that stroke given the circumstances he faced on 16,” said the 21-year-old’s American playing companion Johnson Wagner. That extra shot left Matsuyama with a one-over 72 and tied-11th with Garcia, among others, on three-over.
Graeme McDowell, who slipped out of contention on six-over after a 73, accused officials of being “a little bit watch-happy out there” after he and Gregory Bourdy were first put on the clock on the fifth hole.
“All right, fine, we got off to a slow start,” said the Portrush man. “We were cutting it very close. I’d a decent shot into the fourth and Gregory hit a great shot to the front edge, which came back in the bunker. We walk onto the fifth tee and they told us we were four and a half minutes out of position and were being put on the clock.
“We’re like what, surely we’re allowed get off to a bad start. There’s a difference between slow play and bad play,” added McDowell. So they put us on the clock for one hole, which Gregory bogeys and I birdie. Then we got to the next tee and they said ‘okay, you’re off the clock now’. So it’s make up your mind, guys.
“Give us a chance. We’ll go out and shoot 80 really fast,” he went on. “If you want us to do it really fast, we’ll run around but this is a really difficult golf course with some tough pins and it was a tough start. On the clock on the fifth hole was a bit out of order, really.
“I thought they were getting a little hard core with the watch out there. I get it. They’re trying to get this thing done but have a little common sense, boys.”
Darren Clarke also had a brush with zealous officials. He and young American Jordan Speith were put on the clock on 12. However, the Ulsterman was not prepared to offer this as an excuse for the four shots he’d drop over the next three holes, including a double-bogey after finding an unplayable lie just five yards off the fairway with his drive at 14.
“It’d be lovely to have an excuse but I’m not that foolish,” he explained. “they told us we were out of position and when you get told that every week, you’ve got to try and catch up. We did but, unfortunately, made some mistakes in doing so.”
In hot contention after 36 holes, Clarke’s main complaint was with his putter and his failure to tuck away any of many chances he made during the birdie-less 76 which relegated him to a share of 25th on six-over.
Indeed, he strongly endorsed a zero-tolerance attitude to slow play. “Definitely. They can fine people all they want but shots are the only thing that’s going to make any difference!”
Shane Lowry took the third round 75 which dropped him to a share of 63rd on 10-over on the chin, saying: “It’s tough out there and I’m playing alright but four birdies in three rounds doesn’t really cut it out there.”