Harrington still has to putt things right
IT was a priceless reality check; a fascinating opportunity to measure Padraig Harrington's progress on his journey back from the heart of darkness. Playing in the final group at TPC Scottsdale on Sunday with born-again genius Phil Mickelson and wizard putter Brandt Snedeker wasn't going to tell a shrewd operator like Harrington a lot he didn't already know about himself.
For the rest of us, however, it was revealing to see the 41-year-old Dubliner go head-to-head with two golfers who, along with world No 1 Rory McIlroy and last week's winner at Torrey Pines, Tiger Woods, will set the benchmark at this year's Major championships.
A wave of anticipation coursed through Irish golfing circles as Harrington purred to a 63 on Saturday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open but our wake-up call came relatively early in the fourth round.
Ireland's three-time Major champion has come a long way in the past month as he beds in new putting routines that he believes have exorcised the inner demons of 2012 – a year in which, Harrington admits, he "lost my confidence reading the greens".
Scottsdale was Harrington's third tournament of the year and his confrontation with two of the hottest form players in golf showed it takes more than 12 rounds to knock out all the dents the 41-year-old has taken to his psyche.
Making it into contention, if that's how one can describe going into Sunday eight strokes behind a rampant Mickelson, gave fair measure of how far Harrington has travelled in recent times.
Regarded as golf's ultimate 'grinder' at his Major-winning peak, Harrington underscored the strides he has made under swing coach Pete Cowen by joining in the birdie-fest in Phoenix, especially during Thursday's 64 and again on Saturday.
Few hit it further than Harrington these days and, in spurts, his iron play was almost a match for Mickelson's laser-guided approaches over the opening 54 holes.
Yet the Dubliner's performance relative to that of his two playing companions in the final round showed there's still quite a way for Harrington to go before that Kevlar shell of confidence that saw him through the closing stages of the 2008 US PGA Championship is fully restored.
With all-out aggression his only real option on Sunday, it wasn't surprising to see him pull a few tee shots left of the fairway or miss a few greens as he fired straight at tight pins.
Yet a chasm separated Harrington from his two playing companions on Sunday when it came to putting.
Mickelson was magnificent over 72 holes as he breezed to his 41st PGA Tour victory – his third at the Phoenix Open – yet even though he played and putted a little more tentatively during Sunday's 67 as he tried to close out his first Tour win in 51 weeks, Mickelson holed some bombs when it mattered most.
Snedeker, the leading putter on the PGA Tour, showed he is back to his formidable best with the flat-iron as he halved Mickelson's lead to three through nine before eventually losing-out by four after a closing 65.
The string of incredible putts made under pressure by both American Ryder Cup stars showed exactly what it takes to win on the PGA Tour.
Snedeker holed from 21 feet for par at the second, from four yards away in the fringe for birdie at the next, and from 11 yards away in the collar for another at six to turn the screw.
Mickelson, after a bogey at two, made a 30-footer at four for his second birdie on the trot and then holed an ingenious 57-foot effort at seven, where he had to hit his ball 20 feet through the fringe to get it to the hole.
Asked what he thought of that effort, Snedeker retorted: "Are you kidding me? I fully expected him to hit a flop-shot from there ... well, he makes it and before I putt he lets me know I need to make it to tie."
Significantly, the 32-year-old stepped straight up and holed his 10-footer for birdie, once again showing how much confidence he has in his short, popped putting stroke.
In contrast to Mickelson and Snedeker, the longest putts Harrington made were from six feet for his par at seven and a five-footer at the ninth.
He missed from eight feet for eagle at the third, 10 feet for birdie at 12 and from six feet for par at the last, where his uncertainty was palpable.
He's getting there, but the old Harrington, king of putters, ain't back yet.
In all, he hit three bogeys on Sunday's card as a closing 70 dropped Harrington into a share of ninth on 17-under, 11 shots behind Mickelson, whose winning total of 256 strokes was just two outside the PGA Tour record set by Tommy Armour III at the 2003 Texas Open.
Up five places to No 47 in the world after that performance, the Dubliner will recall fondly his first appearance in front of half a million spectators at the best-attended tournament in golf.
Harrington's head was high as he headed to Pebble Beach for this week's rendezvous with JP McManus at the AT&T National Pro-Am after a weekend that made it easier for the rest of us to have faith, hope, but above all, patience!