Padraig Harrington didnt make too many short lists.
Most eyes were on Phil Mickelson, No. 2 in the world with three majors among his 35 victories around the world. Maybe it was time for Ernie Els to emerge anew, especially now that Woods wasnt around to break his heart. Youth focused on Sergio Garcia, a phenomenal talent who had captured the next best thing to a major at The Players Championship.
First came his four-shot victory in the British Open, where he shot 32 on the back nine in 35 mph wind at Royal Birkdale. One month later, Harrington awoke from a daze to win the PGA Championship with a 66-66 at Oakland Hills.
That gave him three of the last six majors ' only Woods has won that many so quickly in the last 25 years.
And instead of asking whether he could fill the void, the question now is whether Harrington can challenge Woods when he returns.
Its a good situation that you can ask that question, Harrington said. I have probably been the leading player in Europe for close to six years. It is a big step now to move up and start competing on a different level. Ive got Phil. Ive got Tiger ahead of me. I dont necessarily pay attention to what theyre doing. I pay attention to more what Im doing.
That might be one reason why Harrington presents such a threat.
He works as hard on his game as anyone, even though Vijay Singh gets the credit as the hardest-working man in golf. Harrington has never been one to be so consumed with results and rankings to abandon the process of getting better. Remember, he went a full year without winning between his consecutive British Open titles.
Many periods in my career, Ive had lulls where Ive been in between things and come out stronger, he said after his two-shot victory over Sergio Garcia and Ben Curtis. Im looking at this period as one of those that I am coming out stronger with experience, and Im putting a lot more things together. Im making things happen on the golf course.
Thats what happened Sunday.
Harrington was three shots behind Garcia at the turn, having watched the Spaniard make a remarkable par with a long bunker shot on the eighth, and an even better par from across the green on the monstrous par-3 ninth.
But thats when the teeth pinched forward, the tongue stuck out of the corner of his mouth, signs that he was pouring everything into every shot. He birdied the 10th from 15 feet, hit 5-wood out of the rough and just over the green on the par-5 12th to set up another birdie, then tied Garcia for the lead with a 12-foot birdie on the 13th.
Harrington played 27 holes Sunday in the rain-delayed PGA Championship. He one-putted 14 times, and took only 11 putts over his final nine holes. None were as meaningful as the last three, when he saved par with a 12-foot putt on the 16th to tie Garcia again, took the lead with a 10-foot birdie on the 17th as Garcia missed from 4 feet, and got his name on the Wanamaker Trophy with a 15-foot par on No. 18.
It was the stuff of major champions. It was the kind of putts Woods routinely makes when he wins majors.
Its a long way to catch Tiger at the top, Harrington said. But I know that the only way of focusing on doing that is focusing on me, controlling what I can do. Thats the only thing I can ask of myself.
It is impossible to ignore Harrington now.
When Europe had gone through eight lean years without a major, it was Harrington who ended the streak with his playoff victory last year at Carnoustie. Not since 1905-06 had a European won the British Open in consecutive years until the Irishman won at Royal Birkdale.
Tommy Armour was the last European to win the PGA Championship in 1930 until Harrington won at Oakland Hills.
And he even carved out history all to himself Sunday as the first European to win consecutive majors.
I obviously hold a lot of European players who I grew up watching in high esteem, Harrington said. To believe that I achieved something they hadnt is very special.
More accolades could follow.
Even though Woods won four of the six PGA TOUR events he entered and captured a 14th career major at the U.S. Open on one good leg, Harrington presents a strong challenge as PGA TOUR player of the year. No one has ever won two majors in the same season without getting voted the award by the players.
He is virtually a lock to win the points-based award from the PGA of America unless Mickelson or Masters champion Trevor Immelman wins every tournament they enter, including the Fall Series.
And to think it all began with a loss no one remembers.
Harrington had a chance to win his first major in the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. He played bogey-free for the first 15 holes until making bogey on the final three to shoot 71 and finish two shots behind.
I dodged a bullet because there was some more high-profile losers that day, he said, referring to Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie. But I walked away from that tournament knowing I could win a major. And youve got to lose them to know you can win them. Ive got to put myself in the position and learn from it and understand it before I actually go and do it.
Thats what Garcia needs to do before he can join the elite. In the meantime, Harrington has rightfully taken his place.
There is no denying that.