Padraig Harrington was three holes away from glory: staring down Tiger Woods over 18 holes and coming out the other side with a trophy, a rare feat accomplished by only a few golfers. Tiger had charged hard, but Paddy steadied himself and did what all of us wish we could do with a three-shot lead: make pars. When he rolled in a birdie and Tiger bogeyed two holes, it looked as though Tiger’s hot start would not be enough to overcome the Irishman’s steely will. If nothing else, it appeared that Woods would have to rip the trophy from Harrington’s cold, dead fingers.
Which is what happened, only we didn’t expect that it would be Paddy doing himself in, blowing up so stunningly and suddenly that the announcers didn’t even have time for a proper funeral.
There are any number of excuses for Paddy’s meltdown: the inexplicable “on the clock” warning that smacked of CBS interference, the rushed play that followed, Tiger’s glorious, heart-stopping 8 iron that must have scrambled Harrington’s brains at just the wrong moment. Whatever the reasons, it was heartbreaking to see such a good duel end so badly. As a viewer, one had visions of this tournament going down to the wire, spurring the beginning of a great rivalry, one that has never really materialized for Woods up until this point. One could picture the two golfers feeding off of each other’s competitive fire as they played together in the first two rounds of the PGA Championship, blowing away the field and making the tournament their own personal showcase.
Paddy is that good. The gentle Irishman with the squeaky voice is a fiery competitor and a fine golfer, with skills in every facet of the game to rival Woods. He has proven he can close the deal under pressure in three majors. He, like Woods, had the patience to rebuild one of the game’s best swings when nobody else understood it.
I root for Paddy. I think even Woods roots for Paddy. Tiger’s comments after the round were almost dripping with a yearning for Harrington to become that long-awaited rival. You could sense he thoroughly enjoyed the challenge Padraig had presented, a stark contrast to the week before, where his ho-hum final round at the Buick Invitational was more than enough to overcome a group of young players who never even threatened him.
If Paddy is to continue on this path back to relevancy, to majors and Sunday battles and Tiger-fighting, he must put that 16th hole firmly behind him. For a pro, a triple bogey is an outlier. Padraig might go another 30 rounds without another triple. There are as alien to him as they are routine to the average golfer. It’s not really fair to call Harrington a choker. The pressure of playing with Woods had not really bothered him all afternoon. Being put on the clock on the 16th hole in the last round with a one shot lead is enough to rattle any golfer. Well, except for Tiger, although everyone knew the warning was really meant for Paddy, never a fast player.
In any case, here’s a toast to the battle that was and the one that might have been, and another for Paddy and the hope that he becomes what we all know he can be: the fiery Irishman who fearlessly stares down the Tiger.