Friday 20 April 2018

Fisher pips charging Harrington as Irish Open gets back on the map

Padraig Harrington watches his second shot from the rough onto the 17th green during the final round of the Irish Open in Killarney yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile
Padraig Harrington watches his second shot from the rough onto the 17th green during the final round of the Irish Open in Killarney yesterday. Photo: Matt Browne / Sportsfile

Karl MacGinty

THE Kingdom has been heaven for new champion Ross Fisher, second-placed Padraig Harrington and, indeed, the entire '3' Irish Open.

Phenomenal crowds of 81,738, the biggest aggregate attendance at the event since Portmarnock in 1989, were thrilled by four days of superb golf on the Killeen Course at Killarney Golf and Fishing Club.

The spectacularly beautiful shores of Lough Leane echoed to their roars by day, while the town of Killarney rocked by night, blasting away the dark clouds of doubt which had hovered over our national championship for the past eight years.

"The Irish Open is back where it belongs among the premier events on the European Tour," said Paul McGinley, making a case that every one of his colleagues in the professional locker-room heartily endorses. "There's been a carnival atmosphere in the town, a great buzz. Players and caddies have had a ball and it'll be great to see it coming back to Killarney next year."

Within the next two months, sponsors '3' and Failte Ireland will sit down with the European Tour to decide on next year's venue. Yet it'd be insane to take the Irish Open anywhere else before its convalescence is truly complete.

The atmosphere generated by 25,673 spectators yesterday approached Ryder Cup intensity and, inevitably, by far the biggest tumult was created by Harrington as he turned up the heat on Fisher with a stunning final-round 64.


The sound wave stirred every one of Harrington's five birdies and his truly spectacular eagle at 16 might have shaken a lesser man. Yet Fisher (29) deserves enormous credit for the way in which he absorbed this pressure to post a nerveless 65 of his own and pocket €500,000 for his fourth victory on Tour.

Harrington's reward for his week's work by far exceeded the €333,330 he earned in second place. Of far more importance is the confidence the Dubliner rediscovered, especially in his short game, as he swept to by far the best of his 35 runner-up finishes as a professional.

After performing an astonishing Houdini-like sequence of escapes on Friday, Harrington spoke of that 'Holy Grail' sought by every golfer -- those days when all the elements of the game, long, short and putting, come together.

Well yesterday he probably got as close to it as we've seen since Sunday afternoon at Royal Birkdale in 2008, when he won the second of his three Major titles.

Second is never an altogether happy place but Harrington was surrounded by a renewed aura of self-assurance as he prepared to fly out of Farranfore today to Akron, Ohio, for this week's Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.

"Oh, I'm not disappointed," he insisted. "Ross Fisher deserved to win. He played great golf: going out as the leader and shooting 65, that's a winning week for him.

"Going into the next two weeks, I'll just keep doing what I've been doing all year, keep working on it and just try a little bit to let it happen a bit more. I think, at times, I'm trying a little bit too hard and just not relaxing enough and just letting it happen."

Amen to that!

Harrington's 15th top-10 finish in 12 months should lift the Irishman four places to 15th in the world rankings, though the most significant steps he made in Killarney were up in the Ryder Cup charts.

While yesterday's victory propelled Fisher into sixth in the race for automatic selection on the European team to play at Celtic Manor, Harrington is now just one place away and a paltry €54,653 shy of the all-important top nine.

Given his resurgence in form in Killarney, it would be hugely surprising if he didn't make the team on his own steam at Firestone or in next week's US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.

Yet Colin Montgomerie would be crazy not to give Harrington a captain's pick if he needed one ... with an ingenious short game like his, the Dubliner is capable of breaking the heart and crushing the resolve of any match-play opponent.

His ability to recover from the most outrageous positions was seen to most exhilarating effort on the sixth and 12th holes yesterday.

Harrington hit his tee shot so far left of the green at the 214-yard sixth, it landed on the downslope of one of the seventh's tee boxes. With the flag on the far side of the green, perilously close to a bubbling brook, it was going to take both confidence and courage to hit it close. Yet Harrington fearlessly drew his lob wedge and executed a full flop-shot of which even Phil Mickelson would have been proud.

His ball soared high and touched down gently just four feet from the pin.

"Starting three behind Ross today, I knew I had to play all the shots," Harrington said. "So there was no point in backing off.

"I was delighted, it's nice when you take on a shot like that, that you do execute it the right way, so that gives me some confidence going forward. It's probably a shot I would have hit as an amateur with my eyes closed, but not quite the same when we are playing the pro game."

However, the most impressive of his great escapes yesterday came from a badly plugged lie in the face of a steep greenside bunker at 12.

Confessing that he'd briefly lost focus on the tee shot because of the absence of any real danger down the fairway, Harrington pulled his drive so far left, he had to try and cut his approach down the right of a column of trees to reach the green. He over-cut the shot and his ball slammed into the sand. No problem to Harrington.

Drawing on several minutes of valuable practice, playing out of 'fried egg' lies at the request of a guest at an outing for sponsor FTI in England last week, he slammed the ball high into the air and it once again settled down obediently close to the pin.

More typical of Harrington's play yesterday was the eagle at 16, which lifted him to 16-under par and, for the third time, earned him a share of the lead. After hitting his tee shot 317 yards into the heart of the fairway, the Dubliner slammed a fabulous five-iron to 12 feet.

Fisher heard the mighty roar but was undeterred, taking the sound advice of his caddie Phil 'Wobbly' Morbey by hitting three-wood instead of driver off the tee at 15, missing the fairway bunker for the first time in five successive rounds and setting up a crucial, confidence-boosting birdie.

Another capable birdie at 16 would put Fisher two ahead and ensured his marriage with Morbey would be consummated in victory. Wobbly, incidentally, achieved his fifth Irish Open title success on his 46th birthday.

Pre-tournament favourite Rory McIlroy confessed that he had found the pressure of playing his home Open in front of such appreciative fans a little too much to bear.

"When you're trying to live up to everyone's expectations and it doesn't quite come off, you can be very hard on yourself and it reflects poorly on your game as well," said McIlroy, who slumped into a tie for 35th with Damien McGrane (worth €21,600).

Defending champion Shane Lowry went out with all guns blazing in a kamikaze final-day bid to hang onto the trophy ... but had to be satisfied with a 72 and a share of 21st.

The ovation the Clara lad received for his birdie at the last probably was worth as much to him as his €32,500 cheque.

Michael Hoey, from Belfast, shot a fine 67 for seventh place and €90,000, while Ryder Cup vice-captains Darren Clarke (12th on eight under, worth €49,950) and McGinley (one shot back in 14th, earning €43,200) can look forward with confidence.

To the victor, Fisher, went the spoils, including the equal best Championship score of 266 (-18), yet the greatest winner of them all is the Irish Open itself.

Irish Independent

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