PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Thrills and spills defined Monday’s wild finish to the Honda Classic.
The final thrill was Padraig Harrington’s, the final spill Daniel Berger’s.
In a punishing conclusion at PGA National, where every contender seemed to need a life preserver in a sink-or-swim final round that extended over two grueling days, Harrington emerged the winner, beating Berger with a par at the second hole of their sudden-death playoff.
Harrington, 43, survived a five-day marathon of weather-delayed golf to claim his first PGA Tour title since the PGA Championship in 2008. He did so after Berger’s tee shot at the 17th hole in the Bear Trap sailed right, splashing down in the moat guarding that hole. Harrington won with a two-putt after stiffing a 5-iron to 3 feet, becoming the first player to win a PGA Tour event on a sponsor exemption since Lee Westwood won the FedEx St. Jude Classic in 2010.
There was something cruelly apropos about this all ending with one last splashdown, because all that water around the Champion Course was such a large factor in the finish.
Ian Poulter took a share of the lead into the final round and then hit five balls in the water, still somehow managing to finish tied for third, a shot out of the playoff.
“It makes you feel pretty sick,” Poulter said. “I’ve handed one away, and it hurts.”
Patrick Reed held a share of the lead going to the 15th tee before – kerplunk – pushing his tee shot in the water there.
“It was a rough day,” Reed said.
Even Harrington was a bit waterlogged entering the playoff. He looked like he had this event won in regulation, taking a one-shot lead to the 71st hole before slicing his tee shot in the water. He needed to hole a clutch 15-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole to go to extra holes with Berger, who closed hard and early with a 64.
“It’s hard to be the leader on this golf course,” Harrington said. “Just like it’s hard to be the leader in a major.”
How difficult did all the trouble make the Sunday/Monday finish? Harrington made two double bogeys in the final round and still won. He was five shots down with eight holes to play. Berger was nine shots back beginning the final round.
Harrington resumed the suspended final round at the eighth tee. In the end, he hit the shots he needed to win.
“I never have trouble hitting a big shot at a big time,” Harrington said.
Harrington needed a big shot to regain some relevancy in the game. Once ranked No. 3 in the world, he entered this week No. 297. He wasn’t eligible for last year’s Masters, and wasn’t this year, not until this victory. His exempt PGA Tour status also ran out this year. He has been playing the Tour on sponsor invites and as a past champion.
“There are no doubt low points in those years, because you know, in 2008, 2009, I'm very much in the penthouse,” Harrington said. “I wasn't quite down to the doghouse, but not far away from it.”
This was Harrington’s 30th worldwide title, his sixth PGA Tour victory, his second Honda Classic title, coming 10 years after his first.
Berger, a 21-year-old rookie from nearby Jupiter, finished the final round brilliantly, closing with back-to-back birdies to shoot 64. He missed a 13-foot birdie chance to win on the first playoff hole at No. 18.
“If you told me I was going to finish solo second when the week started, I'd probably take it,” Berger said. “Right now, not as happy as I wish I was. But it's just a good learning experience.”
Berger, the son of former tennis pro Jay Berger, a three-time ATP winner, saw a chance to play in his first Masters sink to the bottom of the lake along with his ball at No. 17 in the playoff. It was a disheartening finish for locals rooting for Berger, who grew up driving the range picker while working at Dye Preserve.
“I think this week shows, with the depth of the field and how many great players there are, that I can compete with the best in the world,” Berger said. “I know this won't be the last chance that I have to win, so just look at it like that.”
While Harrington relishes regaining exempt status and returning to the Masters, he isn’t allowing himself to dwell on that quite yet.
“A lot of things are being said about what this means going forward,” Harrington said. “The one thing you learn is you don't win as often as you think. I'm just enjoying winning the Honda Classic.”