Harrington champ again

The Baltimore Sun

SOUTHPORT, England - In a corner of the locker room at Royal Birkdale, all these years later, somehow, Greg Norman resumed the practice of a rare art he long since mastered - the gallant handling of a galling defeat.

He packed things into a swanky green bag, stood amid a gaggle of reporters and, as on so many 20th-century Sundays exasperating enough to rate cringe-worthy, answered question after question yesterday, looking the questioners in the eye.

"I'm not as disappointed as I was in the '80s and '90s, that's for sure," he said. "It's a different disappointment. Of course you want to close it out. But at the same time, you've got to take a little stock of the situation."

By that he meant his redefinition of the human age 53 during the 137th British Open given a startling lack of preparation. He had shown that a 53-year-old could wow a golf audience, stretch imaginations and lead a coveted major by two shots after three rounds. He had also toppled to third place not only through his dreary 77, but even more so through the champion Padraig Harrington's shining back-nine 32.

As Norman's one-shot lead after the front nine dissolved into his staggering 23rd finish between second place and sixth place in majors, all the suspense drained out of the dunes on the Irish Sea and instead cast the light on Harrington.

And when the light went on, the 36-year-old Irishman who looked positively mad in the sunshine playing in short sleeves in wretched wind, it found one of the better rounds of the golfing decade, a glowing 69 forged with a posture brimming with a defending champion's know-how.

"You know, one of the keys to playing well on Sunday is you don't ever get into the consequences of what you're doing," said Harrington, the first European repeat British Open titlist in 102 years. "I did that very well today. I never at any stage - or if I did for a second or two, I stopped myself - started to think about what it means to win a second Open, defend an Open, win two majors."

That's partly how he wound up winning a long-contentious tournament at 3-over-par by a gaping four shots over England's Ian Poulter and by a yawning six over Norman and Sweden's Henrik Stenson. The other part would be the intestines he demonstrated from the 17th fairway.

Having birdied Nos. 13 and 15 to lead the finished Poulter by two shots and the faltering Norman by three, but fretting about Norman possibly eagling par-5 No. 17, Harrington went for glory and struck his favorite club, a 5-wood, toward the pin and toward memorable.

"Once I hit it, it was perfect," he said. "It's one of the few times I think I've ever heard my caddie say, 'Good shot,' to me before the ball is finished. He doesn't realize he's doing it, and I will rib him about it later."

Low and true, it seemed to ride on the wind that dominated this Open, which many called the toughest four-day stretch of golf given the thousands of inconsiderate wind gusts. It plunked down on the green, curled around the cup and hushed just 3 feet beyond.

The eagle clinched the tournament. It gave Harrington a carefree walk up No. 18 that differed mightily from his nerve-clattering win over Sergio Garcia at Carnoustie in 2007. It also revealed the odd virtues of a wrist injury, as the same ache that prompted "Harrington Might Withdraw" headlines last Wednesday became an odd boon.

It nixed or curtailed practice sessions, shooed pressure and, for what became an unusually grueling tournament, Harrington said, "It was like coming in afresh."

And finally, that 5-wood also finished off the golf geezer with the 77 that seemed less catastrophic than the 78 that wrecked the Masters in 1996. To repeat: Norman hadn't played the past 11 majors. He had played 15 rounds of competitive golf this year. He had used this as a tuneup for two senior events. His June "preparations" included planning and carrying out his wedding to the tennis star Chris Evert.

He's 53 according to Australian birth records.

"I was very surprised how great he did," Evert said beside No. 18.

He did start with three bogeys, including a dying five-foot par putt on No. 2 that should have come with an airsickness bag. But he did gather it before bogeys on Nos. 10, 12 and 13, plus that impossible back-nine 32 by Harrington. And Norman did wind up saying, "A lot of people should take stock no matter how old you are. If you really want to chase something and chase a dream, you can go do it."

He had chased through three rounds that buried the story line of Tiger Woods' absence, and he had started a Sunday seeking to have his British titles stretch from 1986 to 1993 to 2008. He had had the life experience of walking again to No. 1 calm, but "nervous calm." Heck, as a top-four finisher he had even qualified for the 2009 Masters - "Consolation!" he joked - but didn't even want to talk about that as he felt "like a whipped dog, man."

So after a week of unimaginable refreshment, then, it felt deflating that he ended up in that same old posture of sturdiness in defeat, but he did it with such aplomb that, walking up No. 18, Harrington said, "I thanked him for his company." Pretty soon, when Norman putted for a bogey to close his stirring week, rows and rows of British golf fans stood and did likewise.

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