The old champion stood on the 17th tee at the Ocean Course, one of the most fiendish golf holes Pete Dye ever conceived. The sun was at his back, the beige grasses of Kiawah Island swaying in the golden light, and Padraig Harrington was in the mix of the 103rd PGA Championship.
Harrington hit it a 4-iron right on the button, a low bullet draw he has struck too many times to count. It landed 28 feet from the cup, leading to an exhale and lengthy applause from the sundrenched gallery.
“The most pressure you’re under all day,” said the 49-year-old Harrington after two closing pars on the two toughest holes staked him to a 1-under 71. “When it comes to me, this is the last roll of the dice for these events. I’ve given myself the chance to get myself mentally in a place as I would have done back in my heyday and not worry so much about the physical side. I was happy I hit some good shots.”
To watch Harrington bouncing along the South Carolina Lowcountry, three months shy of eligibility for PGA Tour Champions and four months shy of wielding a walkie talkie as European Ryder Cup captain, was a throwback moment on a taxing day of golf.
He leaned into his drives, averaging 300 yards a pop against players half his age. He scrambled around the Ocean Course with flair, getting up and down 9 out of 11 times and needing just 24 putts.
When he wasn’t carving shots, he was trading verbal jabs with fellow PGA champions Phil Mickelson (70) and Jason Day (74).
“A bit of banter,” Harrington said. “A few windups.”
Harrington hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since 2015 and the European Tour since 2016, but he has always been one of the game’s hardest workers, emptying buckets of balls on ranges from Florida to Dublin.
Though his dedication to his craft now includes a Ryder Cup captaincy – organizing team meetings, scouting talent, contemplating pairings and outfits and speeches – Harrington tasked himself with keeping his major championship weeks as spartan as possible.
“I’m here to play the actual event,” Harrington said. “I’m trying to take some time out in and around the event with my own preparation. I’m not organizing anything the week of a major.”
Harrington said his best shot of the day actually led to his highest score of the day. Hitting his third out of a fairway bunker on the par 5 16thhole, he flushed a 7-iron high into the South Carolina sky.
“I hit the most beautiful draw into the wind,” he said. “It was such a nice shot.”
The ball landed firmly and rolled over the back of the green, disappearing into a tall patch of grass.
When Harrington found the ball, he stood with his hands on his hips, contemplating his fourth shot. He hit the chip exactly how he wanted to, he said later.
“It just got a soft bounce,” he said.
When his 20 footer for par scooted past the hole, a local shook his head, muttering to himself in a thick drawl, “Hit it right through the break.”
Harrington was undeterred, soaking in another sunset, as he has so often on both sides of the Atlantic, forever the tinkerer, forever the champion.