Wednesday 18 September 2019

Unfriendly rivalry on golf's toughest finishing hole

There was ill-feeling between Harrington and Garcia prior to the 2007 British Open: ‘He was obviously very disappointed and I was obviously thrilled,’ said Harrington, four months after the event. Photo: Getty Images
There was ill-feeling between Harrington and Garcia prior to the 2007 British Open: ‘He was obviously very disappointed and I was obviously thrilled,’ said Harrington, four months after the event. Photo: Getty Images

Dermot Gilleece

During end-of-season disclosures at this time 10 years ago, Pádraig Harrington insisted that the 18th at Carnoustie was the toughest finishing hole in championship golf. Which prompts the thought as to the joys that await when the Open Championship returns there next July.

We can take it there are likely to be changes from 2007, when at 499 yards a new tee lengthened it by 12 yards from Paul Lawrie's victory in 1999. And from its par five configuration when Gary Player triumphed in 1968, it was reduced to a 448-yard par four in 1975, the only other staging there in recent decades.

The main threat, of course, comes from the Barry Burn, which takes a twisting route down the 17th and 18th like the coils of a boa constrictor, ready to squeeze the life out of the unwary. On the 18th, it forms three sides of a square encompassing the landing area, the fourth side being provided by rough and mounding down the right.

This means you daren't be right, left or short. And the furthermost side of the square sees the Burn pass in front of the green, where players may decide to lay up, depending on the wind. Finally, there is the threat of out of bounds, uncomfortably close to the left side of the putting surface.

Harrington's figures for the 18th in 2007 over the scheduled 72 holes plus the play-off against Sergio Garcia, were 4, 6, 4, 6, 5. In a curious way, those figures provided comfort as he sat in the recorder's hut, waiting for Garcia to finish. He later recalled how he, his caddie Ronan Flood and "a few R and A officials," watched television with the sound turned down so that he wouldn't hear any analysis of the six he had just completed.

"I remember thinking how difficult it was going to be for Sergio to make par on the toughest finishing hole in golf," he said. "I wouldn't let it enter my mind that I might lose. There's just trouble everywhere you look, but when Sergio hit a lovely putt [10 feet for par], I thought he holed it. Then suddenly I became aware that I had been given a second chance."

In the wake of the Spaniard's US Masters triumph earlier this year, Harrington and Garcia eventually made peace while guests at Rory McIlroy's wedding. Though there was ill-feeling between them prior to Carnoustie, that was the first time I became aware of it.

So, four months after the event, it seemed reasonable to ask the Dubliner about their relationship since a tense and often spiky play-off. "I don't think Sergio and myself have managed to speak a word since," said Harrington. "I'm not the sort of person who's going to put my arm around him and console him. That's for his family. They would be hollow words coming from me."

He went on: "In some ways I don't have much to say to him and he doesn't have much to say to me because of . . . (voice tailed off). He was obviously very disappointed and I was obviously thrilled. So we're at totally opposite ends of the scale there."

That was it. And though Garcia, the best driver in the field, had taken eight putts more than Harrington over 72 holes, there was no mention of the Spaniard's attempt at becoming the first to wield a broomhandle putter to victory in a Major championship.

Harrington then talked prophetically of what his achievement was going to mean to Irish golf, "to all the young lads that are competing as amateurs and turning pro. We have an Open champion from Ireland."

Of course there was also the money. "As Open champion I can go anywhere," he said with obvious pride. "One Major winner has said that you add one more zero to your income, but I'm trying to do the maths and it certainly doesn't make that difference. Admittedly it has heightened my profile, but I've been European number one for five years. There are certainly attractive offers out there, but they're accepted as attractive only if they also fit into my schedule."

He had reason to think rather differently 12 months later. In the autumn of 2008, while the world's economies were heading into recession, Harrington's status rocketed sky-high as the winner of three Major championships.

In the grand setting of Dublin Castle, Wilson Golf made quite a fuss about a new three-year contract valued at $10m to play with their clubs. Two months later, he signed a deal with the American finance company FTI, valued at $12m.

In the meantime, his playing plans underwent a marked change of emphasis. "Obviously it's five months to the next Major, the Masters [April 2008]," he said. "And every tournament I play between now and then, there'll be an element of focus on Augusta. Then it becomes the US Open; then the Open and then the PGA. Outside of that, you're looking at the Irish Open. Even though I've won it, I still look on it as one of my big events."

All of which would have seemed decidedly fanciful when Harrington stood on Carnoustie's 72nd tee, driver in hand on a hole he simply didn't like. His discomfort went back to the British Amateur Championship of 1992 when, with his best chance of winning the title, he hit his second shot out of bounds. Not even Dunhill Links victories in 2002 and 2006, when Carnoustie had to be negotiated, would have eased that concern.

Not surprisingly, the 18th emerged from the 2007 Open as the most difficult on a formidable links, averaging 4.61 strokes compared with the second-toughest, the par-four 12th, at 4.39. Clearly it wasn't the place to make a poor swing, which Harrington did, pushing the ball right where it tried in vain to cross a bridge over the Burn in front of the 17th tee.

From there, his torment en route to a remarkable double-bogey six has been well documented. There was even talk between caddie and player of Jean van de Velde, the hapless Frenchman, who had squandered the Open in similar circumstances in 1999.

"I remember discussing Van de Velde with Bob Rotella earlier in the week," he said. "We had a look at the very spot he hit from, because it was one of the most fascinating holes ever played in golf. And there is no question that when I was taking my own six, I was thinking, well he took seven, let's try and beat him."

A few weeks after Harrington's triumph, Tiger Woods publicly aired his views on the Carnoustie climax for the first time. "It was very interesting to see it," he said smiling. "Paddy looked like he was going to win it and then didn't look like he was going to finish the [72nd] hole."

In one of his more mischievous moods, David Feherty vowed that if Carnoustie was the only course he could play for the rest of his golfing life, "I'd quit the game." Harrington phrased this more gently when saying: "It's a course you respect, rather than love."

Finally, describing the Barry Burn as quiet and sinuous, subtle and seductive, the distinguished British scribe, John Hopkins, wrote: "On good days, most water hazards twinkle and sparkle in the sun. The Barry Burn never does that. It is tidal for one thing, so the water does not have time to dance. It is constantly on the move."

Just like the fluctuating fortunes of its celebrated challengers.

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