Harrington at home in Phoenix as glint returns
IT'S tempting to suggest Padraig Harrington rose from the ashes in Phoenix – yet he's had that glint in his eye since the start of the new year.
Even resounding boos from the vast gallery around TPC Scottsdale's world-famous 16th when he missed the green with his tee shot didn't dent Harrington's enthusiasm for a tournament that boasts the rowdiest atmosphere in golf.
He won back the uproarious 20,000-plus spectators surrounding this 165-yard hole by once again punting American footballs made by his equipment sponsor Wilson into the stands; and then by putting his ball 25 feet back up the hill to leave a tap-in for par.
Harrington performed with such confidence over four days at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, especially on the greens, it's easy once again to envisage the Dubliner adding to his haul of three Majors.
Attendance records were shattered as more than 550,000 people turned out to follow Arizona's adopted son, Phil Mickelson, on his messianic 72-hole walk through the desert.
Mickelson sealed his third career win at the Phoenix Open and the first pillar-to-post victory on the PGA Tour since Rory McIlroy won the 2011 US Open at Congressional as a final-round 67 left him four ahead of Brandt Snedeker on 28-under.
After thrilling galleries with last Thursday's first-round 60, Arizona State graduate Mickelson blazed to 24-under through Saturday. Mickelson played more tentatively yesterday in benign conditions, which Scott Piercy fully exploited by storming into outright third with a stunning 61.
Mickelson finished two outside the all-time PGA Tour low-score of 254 strokes set by Tommy Armur III in the 2003 Texas Open. In the final group with Mickelson and Snedeker, Harrington's mission was to try and exert pressure on his good friend Phil.
Eight behind the talismanic Californian (and trailing Snedeker by two) after rounds of 64, 70 and that 63 on Saturday, the Dubliner missed too many fairways left and didn't putt with quite the same conviction during the 70 that left him tied ninth on 17-under. This finish was good enough to propel Harrington back into the world's elite top 50.
Harrington had two reasons for playing in Phoenix. He wanted to experience for the first time the noisiest atmosphere in golf and to be able to hit the ground running at this week's AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, where he and amateur partner JP McManus are defending champions.
Pebble Beach and Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, which hosts next week's Northern Trust Open, are two of Harrington's favourite courses in world golf – yet TPC Scottsdale made an impression he's unlikely ever to forget.
On Saturday, he played in front of 179,022 spectators, the largest one-day attendance ever at a golf tournament. It was such a thrill, Harrington conceded he struggled to keep his excitement in check down the stretch.
"We play a lot of good events during the year, but this one is completely unique in a great way," he said.
"Those last three holes really are thrilling. It's like playing your first tournament as a rookie professional and it's really hard to keep your mind from racing away from you. You have to embrace the excitement."
Harrington has not won on the US or European Tour since wrapping up his third Major title in 13 months at the 2008 PGA and, over the ensuing years, Harrington plummeted from a career-high third in the world to 96th last April.
Yet he kept the faith. New coach Pete Cowen has worked the oracle with his swing since August 2011, while he's regained much of the confidence in reading putts after losing his way on the greens last season.
He enjoys golf too much ever to lose hope. "I'm 41 and think I'm a kid," he explained, "because I think I'm going to find the secret every day I go out there and hit balls – I just love it."
In Phoenix, it began to look as if that love will not go unrequited for much longer.