When The Open gets underway on Thursday at Royal Birkdale there will be no shortage of lessons to be gleaned from the last time the game’s oldest major was played on the English links.
After winning the claret jug in 2007, Padraig Harrington arrived early the next year to fulfill his duties as reigning Champion Golfer of the Year, but didn’t hit a full shot until he set out on Thursday because of an injury. He endured a brutal start in even worse conditions and, like most of the field, was a competitive afterthought until late on Sunday.
It may have been a magical 5-wood that sealed the victory for Harrington in ’08, but it was his mind that made that shot possible.
“I felt I was favored,” Harrington said. “The media wanted a fairytale story with Greg [Norman]; I was aware of that and I’d recently played with Greg, knew what a great player he was, but I felt like this was my tournament.”
Although Harrington’s confidence was understandable – he was the defending champion, after all – his week at the ’08 championship didn’t exactly get off to a fairytale start.
He was nursing a right-wrist injury when he arrived at Birkdale, hadn’t seriously contended since his major breakthrough a year earlier at Carnoustie and could only chip and putt to prepare right up until his Day 1 tee time. But in his signature idiosyncratic way, the Irishman never doubted his ability or his chances.
“I’m a great believer a lot of times with injuries you’re better off playing with them. A lot of times the adrenaline of a tournament can get you through,” he said. “I just didn’t know anything that would happen. It took a lot of stress off me and a lot of pressure off me.”
He maintained that outlook even when he set out on Thursday in what some still consider the worst conditions in recent Open memory.
Harrington, playing in the early wave, started his title defense with a bogey at his first hole and closed his round with back-to-back bogeys for a 4-over 74, which normally would be a reason to start planning for a short week.
“I don’t watch the golf, but I was walking by the TV room and Adam Scott was knocking it onto the 15th in two [shots] and it had taken three woods when I played it in the morning so I nearly put my foot through the TV,” he said.
Just six players managed rounds at or under par on Day 1 in ’08 – with Robert Allenby, Graeme McDowell and Rocco Mediate leading the way with 69s – and the scoring average on Thursday was 75.87. Birkdale would rank as the toughest course on the PGA Tour by more than a half stroke that season.
“I shanked it out of bounds on the first,” recalled Paul Casey, who tied for seventh. “It was awful. I thought how can we be playing in this, when is the horn going to blow? It never happened.”
Harrington endured, however, and when Sunday arrived he was tied for second place, two strokes behind Norman, who at 53 was the oldest player to hold at least a share of the 54-hole lead at The Open.
The nostalgia of Norman’s run didn’t last long, with the Australian opening with three consecutive bogeys on his way to a 77 and a tie for third.
Ian Poulter, who teed off nearly an hour before Harrington on Sunday, quickly set the new mark with a closing 69, one of just six under-par cards on Day 4 and a round that included the most Poulter-esque of finishes.
One stroke clear of the field playing the 72nd hole, the Englishman followed a poor tee shot with a mediocre recovery and chipped to 8 feet for par.
“We all think, and so does Ian, [the par putt] is to win The Open,” Casey said. “So he looks at his putt and he goes to [caddie Terry Mundy], ‘Terry, come here.’ Terry is like, he hasn’t called me in all week to read a putt and now he’s calling me in so when I read this putt and he misses it he’s going to blame me.'
“So Terry goes over and bends down to read the putt, and Poulter’s like, no, no I’ve got the putt. You remember when you’re a kid at your home club and say to yourself this putt to win the Open? Well, this is my putt, now watch this.”
Poulter made the putt to finish at 7 over for the week, but it wasn’t to win The Open.
Following three consecutive bogeys before the turn, Harrington rebounded with birdies at Nos. 13 and 15 to move to 5 over before hitting what may be the most memorable shot of his career on the par-5 17th hole to seal his second major championship.
From 272 yards, Harrington rifled a 5-wood to 3 feet for what was essentially a walk-off eagle.
“It was a hell of a long way back in the day. A cold, windy day with the wind whipping off the left, but it was my favorite club and I was feeling good. You can never underestimate someone feeling good about their game, feeling confident with the shot they are hitting,” Harrington said. “It was one of the few times I’ve heard my caddie tell me it was a good shot when it was in the air.”
At the time, Harrington called his victory at the ’08 Open the most satisfying of his career, which is surprising considering how emotional he was following his victory a year earlier in Scotland. Asked recently where his Birkdale victory ranks the 45-year-old had a more reasoned take.
“Everything I did the week of Birkdale went exactly how you would dream of winning a major when you’re 15 years of age,” he said. “I played great, swung the club well, hit some spectacular shots, I was favorite. When you were a kid this is the scenario you would have had.”
Despite poor health and a poor draw, for Harrington it was the perfect ending.