BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. — With the No. 1 player out for the rest of the year, golf had a job opening for a player with nerves of steel and a nose for the finish line. It found such a man at Oakland Hills, a 36-year-old Dubliner who has started putting like Tiger Woods and can't stop winning majors no matter how formidable the weather and/or medical obstacles in his path.
Squeezing 27 holes into one amazing Sunday, Padraig Harrington made clutch putts on the last three holes to shoot his second straight 66 and win the 90th PGA Championship by two strokes over Ben Curtis and Sergio Garcia. Harrington has won three of the last six majors and becomes the first European to win the PGA since Tommy Armour in 1930. He is the first European to win the British Open and the PGA in the same year, and the first European ever to win two consecutive majors.
"I don't know how other people are going to feel; I know I love the idea of the back nine of a major on a Sunday," said Harrington. "I love it so much that I'm actually disappointed I'm seven months away from the next major, and I don't know what I'm going to do."
Thunderstorms forced officials to stop play at 2:16 p.m. Saturday, forcing most of the field to resume play at 7:15 a.m. Sunday, in cold, windy conditions.
It was, in other words, Harrington's kind of day. He made four straight back-nine birdies to complete his first 66 of the day and get into the second-to-last threesome with Garcia at one over par for the tournament, three behind Curtis.
For much of the final round Sunday, Garcia, still winless in the majors, seemed destined to break through. He birdied the first hole, eagled the second and was two ahead of Harrington but a shot behind Curtis, who also birdied the first.
Putting has always been El Nino's bugaboo, but he looked solid Sunday. It was enough to bring memories of the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, when Garcia made five birdies in eight holes to dust Phil Mickelson, 3 and 2.
Garcia has tried left-hand low, right-hand low, the long putter, the belly putter, even two putters in case one went on strike. That was at the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February, when he began working with putting guru Stan Utley.
"My main idea was to get back to the way I used to putt," Garcia said in May.
It seems to have worked. Garcia got to three under at the sixth hole, converting a five-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead. He saved pars on the tough eighth and ninth holes to get through the front nine in just 31 strokes.
"It looked like his day," Harrington said. "Especially through eight and nine. He's made two really good up-and-downs, he's holing the putts, and this is an area he's struggled at in the past, and it looks like it's going to happen for him."
Harrington began his run on the par-5 12th, where he drove wildly, leaving himself behind a tree. Already trailing Garcia by two shots, he was at a crucial juncture. "I took the shot on; I knew I had to from in the trees," Harrington said.
He narrowly avoided a tree and his ball went just over the green, setting up a birdie. Garcia could make only a par. Harrington was just one shot behind, and he pulled even with a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 13th hole.
It seemed unlikely that he would ever get to this point.
"Something had me a little bit off my stride this week," Harrington said. "My coordination wasn't quite there."
He was a basket case at the end of Friday's 74, when he lost his drive on the eighth hole way right, and followed that up with a 4-iron to the par-3 ninth hole that went 40 yards too far left.
Harrington called his trainer, and they determined that maybe he had simply been dehydrated. He resolved to drink more water and hoped that his fine motor skills would return. (At the British Open this year, Harrington won despite a wrist injury that nearly kept him out of the tournament.)
Saturday's rain hydrated everything at Oakland Hills, and Harrington wasn't the only one making birdies Sunday. Curtis reached the 12th hole in two shots and birdied just as Harrington had. He wasn't going away.
The final three holes at Oakland Hills are brutally difficult, and once again they separated the winner from the rest of the field. It started when Garcia hit his 6-iron approach shot into the pond guarding the 16th green. The ball touched down on land but kicked right into the water.
"There's no doubt that was the opportunity I was looking for," said Harrington, who was one behind after a bogey at 14. "That was the opening of the door."
Leery of doing the same thing, he missed his own approach shot left, his ball landing in a greenside bunker. Garcia took a drop some 50 yards in front of the green and pitched to five feet behind the pin, while Harrington splashed out 20 feet past it when a rock got between the ball and his clubface.