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.
But Harrington has become positively Woods-like on the greens. The bigger the putt, the more likely he is to make it. He did it again on 16, and Garcia made his short bogey putt. Again, they were tied. Curtis was also at two under.
Harrington hit first on 17, and flew his 5-iron straight at the pin, setting off a loud celebration when his ball settled eight feet behind the cup. Garcia answered with a shot to four feet left of the pin, detonating another wild celebration.
The players walked to the green and didn't know which ball was which. When Harrington realized he was away, he thought as Woods would: He had a chance to get in the hole first, and he did.
"If I holed this, I probably would win the PGA," he said. "If I missed, Sergio would probably win the PGA. So it was down to that. And I hit a lovely putt." Garcia pulled his four-footer, and the ball caught just a sliver of the left side of the cup. It was his first bad miss all day.
"I felt good with my game, I felt really good with my putting," Garcia said. "I'm sure you guys will find a way to switch it around, but you know I really felt like I putted great today and, you know, just a couple of putts didn't want to go in, but you can't do anything about that."
When the week began, it figured that a European would win, given Europe's stellar performance at the 2004 Ryder Cup, also held at Oakland Hills.
Harrington went 4-1-0 for that team, and Garcia 4-0-1. Still, it was shocking how much Sunday's final round resembled Sunday at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie, where Harrington beat Garcia in a four-hole playoff. Even the cooler-than-average weather at Oakland Hills, a mixture of swirling winds, spitting rain and the occasional ray of sunshine, felt British.
"It was worse when I finished the Open Championship than right now," Garcia said. "I feel like, you know, to shoot 69-68 on the last two rounds at a major on a course like this, I think it's pretty positive."
Curtis, the forgotten man, earned a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team with his tie for second place. Phil Mickelson made a run with birdies on the second, third and fourth holes to get to one over for the tournament, but bogeyed the eighth, 11th and 14th to shoot 70. The 38-year-old lefthander, the No. 2 player in the World Ranking, has now gone two years in a row without a major title.
Harrington ties Mickelson with three career majors and becomes a viable candidate for Player of the Year, an honor Woods seemed to have locked up despite only playing for the season's first six and a half months.
Like Woods, Harrington has arrived at a mentality, equal parts self-reliance and unwavering focus, that is particularly suited to major championship golf.