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Harrington repeats at British Open and ends Norman's dream

Photo: John Biever/SI

"I'm quite enjoying this," Harrington said, holding the claret jug. "I don't think I'll get down off the stage."

SOUTHPORT, England — While the rest of the field wore layers, Padraig Harrington wore shirtsleeves at Royal Birkdale on Sunday. He has convinced himself that terrible conditions are inhospitable only for everyone else, turning himself into a sort of golfing Wall-E who eats up garbage (wind, rain, rough) and spits out pars.

But when he had to make a birdie, Harrington made two, and an eagle, going four-under on his last six holes to shoot 69 and win the 137th British Open by four strokes over Ian Poulter (69). The Irishman is the first European to repeat as Open champ since James Braid of Scotland won in 1905-06. Before Tiger Woods won in 2005-06, no one had gone back-to-back since Tom Watson in '82 and '83. In all, 16 players have defended their titles since the first Open was played in 1860.

"This year is more satisfying," said Harrington. "You know, to go out there and shoot 69 in that last round, I don't think — if you had offered it to me last night I certainly would have taken it. It's the first time that I was in the last group of a major tournament on Sunday. So it's a different pressure, it's a different stress, and I'm delighted I managed it."

Harrington finished three over par for the tournament and earned $1.5 million for the victory.

Greg Norman (77) and Henrik Stenson (71) tied for third place at nine over, while low American Jim Furyk (71) and the English amateur Chris Wood (72) were another shot back at 10 over.

Norman, 53, sat on a two-shot lead going into Sunday, but he never looked comfortable on this fourth straight day of strong winds. Trying to become the oldest major championship winner ever, he bogeyed his first three holes to give up the lead.

Harrington returned the favor with his own three bogeys on holes seven through nine, but again Norman couldn't get the ball in play.

He drove way left of the fairway and bogeyed 10, and his par putt horseshoed around the hole to bogey 12. He hit into trouble on 13, finding the cross bunkers with an iron off the tee. He had to chip out sideways and made another bogey.

"Oh, shades of Troon," Peter Alliss said gravely on the BBC, referring to Norman's playoff loss to Mark Calcavecchia in the 1989 British Open, which also involved a drive that found a bunker.

Harrington made pars on 10, 11 and 12 before his decisive run.

By virtue of his top-four finish, Norman will be exempt into the 2009 Masters, if he wants to play.

"I can walk away from here being disappointed, but I can walk away with my head held high, because I hung in there," Norman said. "It looked like it was going to get away from me, and I got a couple of unfortunate lip-outs. Maybe if on 11 and 12 if they lip in instead of lip out it's a totally different score."

For most of Sunday's final round the question was not who had a chance, but who didn't. By the time Harrington and Norman made the turn in 37 and 38, respectively, all signs pointed to an 18-man playoff at 12 over par.

But just as it seemed no one wanted to win this Open, the defending champion took control.

Harrington hit a 3-iron off the 13th tee and a 5-iron to 15 feet. He made the putt for his first birdie of the day. He hit the par-5 15th hole in two and two-putted from 40 feet for birdie, then hit two five-woods to within three feet of the pin for eagle on 17.

It was all over but the trophy presentation, but this is the Open, and Harrington knew not to let his mind wander.

"You can't have enough shots in the lead going down 18," he said, setting off laughter in the media room. "I proved that last year." He was referring to his disastrous finish at the 2007 Open that led to a playoff with Sergio Garcia.

When Norman tapped in for bogey on one, having found a pot bunker short of the green, his lead was one over Harrington, two over K.J. Choi, three over Simon Wakefield and four over Anthony Kim and Ross Fisher. Wood birdied the seventh and ninth holes to turn in one-under 33, seven over for the tournament and just a few back. Anyone, it seemed, could win.

Norman's main weakness is that he is semi-retired, more of a tennis player nowadays than a golfer. Still, Harrington didn't count him out, having lost to him 2 and 1 in an exhibition match at Doonbeg, the Norman-designed links course in southwest Ireland, in 2002.

"When he's interested, Greg Norman can really play," Harrington said before the final round. "He knocked the socks off me in Doonbeg, and you could see he wanted to play golf that day."

Norman wanted to play Sunday, but his driver wouldn't cooperate, producing wild shots on the second, sixth and eighth holes. His putter, hot all week, also failed him, and he was seemingly out of contention.

It looked like a replay of Augusta in 1996, the leader fidgeting and fighting his game, his closest pursuer steadily coming up behind, only this time the prize was a jug, not a jacket.

Then Harrington bogeyed seven, eight and nine, and just like that Norman was back in the lead by a shot. Neither man made a birdie until the 13th hole, when Harrington rolled in an 18-footer and Norman bogeyed. The two-shot swing left the Irishman six over and up three strokes on his AARP-aged playing partner.

But there was another man to worry about. Englishman Ian Poulter, playing five groups ahead, turned in 35 on the front and then birdied 11. When he stroked his 18-foot birdie putt into the 16th hole, the ball hanging on the front edge of the cup before going in, he was seven over with just two holes to play, one of them the par-5 17th.

Alas, after a great drive and second shot to get home in two, he made a three-putt par. On 18, his second shot came up short but he made a 15-footer to save par. He was in the clubhouse at seven over. It seemed potentially good enough for a playoff, and Poulter began warming up on the driving range.

Then Harrington began his heroics.

From the outset Sunday there were low scores to be had, as evidenced by David Howell's three-under 67 and Ernie Els and Robert Karlsson's one-under 69s. All three players got to 12 over for the tournament, eventually finishing tied for seventh place.

But with few exceptions the players who were close enough to put pressure on the last pairing failed to make a move. Other than Poulter, Wood came the closest. Wakefield, a mid-career Englishman who has never won on the Euro Tour, imploded with a back-nine 43. Fisher also shot 43. Kim couldn't scratch out a single birdie and shot 75 (T7). Choi (79, T16) fought his putter.

"I just went brain-dead," said Sergio Garcia, speaking for many after a 78 (T51). "My body just didn't react to my thoughts. I couldn't think straight and didn't make any good decisions."

Four straight days of 25-48-mph winds has that effect on people. Unless, of course, you're Harrington. He and Norman almost didn't play this British Open, and not because they were emulating Nike's first golf commercial (I Am Tiger Woods).

Norman felt his game wasn't ready, but while vacationing in the Scottish Highlands with his new bride, Chris Evert, she convinced him to play. And so it was a week in which the headline "Stormin' Norman" referred to the Great White Shark, and not two players in the chase pack, Storm and Noren (Graeme and Alex, respectively).

Harrington hurt his right wrist while swinging a club into an impact bag on the Saturday before the Open, and he played only nine holes in practice rounds. He pronounced himself only 75% likely to start, and 50% likely to finish all four rounds. But once he commits, as he did Wednesday night, he is 100% likely to fight, and on Sunday he called the injury a blessing in disguise.

"It pushed everything about coming back to defend to the side," he said. "It took a lot of the pressure off me, a lot of the stress off me. It was a good distraction to have."

And so in the end even a sprained wrist became a positive, which makes sense only when you remember that this is a man who would just as soon play golf with sand blowing sideways, water running down his nose and gorse grabbing at his ankles.

Padraig Harrington has found his major.

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