Proof Positive

January 24, 2012

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — Glass half full played glass half empty at the 136th British Open on Sunday. Guess which one won?

In his comments to the media on Saturday, Padraig Harrington said he probably didn't have much of a chance. He would start the final day six strokes behind Sergio Garcia. He needed to play his best golf and assumed he'd already done it, having gone nine under par through 12 holes of his Wednesday practice round. Besides, it was obvious that Garcia was in command. What were the odds he would back up?

But Harrington had a secret: He had been convincing himself all week that he was going to win. And more to the point, the golf gods hate predictability, especially at Carnoustie, which will forever be joined at the brain with Jean Van de Velde. We should have known it was going to be a strange day when putting savant Steve Stricker missed a three-footer on the 2nd hole, the equivalent of a cat landing on its head.

As it turned out, Harrington didn't have to go crazy-low because Garcia came back just enough. The Irishman Harrington posted a four-under 67 after twice hitting into the Barry Burn and getting up-and-down for double bogey on the 18th. That didn't look good enough to win until Garcia, playing two groups behind, bogeyed the 18th to force a four-hole playoff. Harrington took a two-shot lead with a birdie on the first extra hole, to Garcia's bogey out of the front bunker, and never relinquished it. He captured his first major title, the first for a European since Paul Lawrie won the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie and the first for an Irishman since Fred Daly won in 1947 at Royal Liverpool.

"I'm a big believer in fate," said Harrington, who saw his first good omen of the day when his second shot on the 14th hole took a fortuitous bounce and rolled close to the hole. He made the eagle putt. "I'd lost to Sergio in a playoff a couple of times before, so I knew I was due."

A huge scrum of press and a handful of players followed the two as they toured the 1st, 16th, 17th and 18th holes. Miguel Angel Jimenez watched with a cigar in hand. Tom Lehman watched with his son. Matt Kuchar, who missed the cut, watched with his wife. The couple had been sightseeing and listening to the radio in the car as regulation play unfolded, and they rushed back to watch the playoff.

Garcia, too, is a big believer in fate. He intimated after his round that the golf gods, or some other unseen forces, are out to get him. The last hole of regulation and the four in overtime were a microcosm of his career in the big events, notwithstanding the Ryder Cup: a bunch of decent-enough looking putts that missed by a fraction of an inch.

"I should write a book on how to not miss a shot in the playoff and shoot one over," he said.

The reality is that Garcia is not great on the greens, hence the belly-putter. He missed mostly on the high side, indicating a flaw in his aim or stroke more than buzzard's luck, but when he was asked afterward about hitting the flagstick of the par-3 16th hole in the playoff, he couldn't hold back.

"It's funny," he started. "It's funny how some guys hit the pin and go to a foot. Mine hits the pin and goes 20 feet away."

Garcia, 27, rarely faults himself for his failures, not when he disappeared while playing in the last group of the 2002 U.S. Open, not when he faded in the final pairing of the 2006 British, both times with Tiger Woods. It's as if Lemony Snicket is giving Garcia's press conferences, expounding to the media on the latest Series of Unfortunate Events. And so a scribe, happy to play along, asked, "It's just not meant to be?"

"You know what's the saddest thing about it? It's not the first time," Garcia said. "It's not the first time, unfortunately. So, I don't know, I'm playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field."

What guys, exactly? Garcia didn't say, and it was left to Gary Player to someday explain things to everyone, the same way he'd illuminated the world's scribes on golf's underground war on drugs earlier in the week.

Garcia wasn't finished. He'd had a chance to finish off the tournament and seize the claret jug on the last hole of regulation. But after hitting an iron to the fairway, he had to wait to hit his second shot, a 3-iron from 250 yards that had to go over the Barry Burn and avoid the trouble left and right. Chris DiMarco and Paul McGinley were struggling in the group ahead, DiMarco making double-bogey and McGinley bogey to finish with 75 and 73, respectively.

"When you're one in front," Garcia said, "hitting a 3-iron into a green where there's danger everywhere, having to wait at least 15 minutes to hit your shot doesn't help."

In fact the wait was no longer than five minutes, but the truth hardly mattered. All those putts that didn't go in the hole in the playoff?

"They all touched the hole," Garcia said.

He couldn't even leave his successes alone: "The birdie I made on 3, I made out of a divot in the fairway," he said.

Bob Rotella, who has made his name as a psychologist to the stars of golf, followed the playoff on foot with everyone else because Harrington is one of his clients. The 35-year-old Dubliner's belief in himself never wavered, he said, even when he'd made a complete mess of the 18th hole in regulation.

He's never liked the hole. He lost a match in the 1992 British Amateur there when he went out of bounds left from the fairway. He said he didn't want to leave too long an approach, which is why he hit driver in regulation. That drive went off a bridge and into the serpentine water hazard, but Harrington still did not give up.

"I never let myself feel like I'd lost the Open championship as I sat watching [Garcia finish on TV]," Harrington said. "The one thing, I never, ever had it in my head that I'd lost. Now if Sergio had parred the last and I did lose, I think I would have struggled to come out and be a competitive golfer. It meant that much to me. But I never let it sink into me that I had just thrown away the Open championship on the 18th."

Harrington also refused to listen to the volume on the TV, saying later, "Obviously I didn't want to hear any analyzing of my 6."

His stubborn fortitude and self-belief paid dividends on the first extra hole. After splitting the fairway, he hit a 162-yard 7-iron to within 10 feet left of the pin and converted the birdie try after his opponent's failure to get up and down. Harrington wasn't about to throw away a two-shot lead twice in one day. Two pars on 16 and 17 and a cautious bogey on 18, this time with a utility wood off the tee, finished it off, but not before a tough two-putt on 18.

"I had great pace this week," he said. "I had no fear standing over 25-yard, 30-yard, 40-yard putts from off the green. I had no fear. I rolled them up stone dead.

"The only putt that probably did something I didn't expect this week was my [first] putt on the fourth hole of the playoff. I couldn't believe I hit it three feet [past the hole] … If there's a putt I don't like it's a right-to-left. I really didn't like that [winning] putt. It was two feet too long."

Several players made a brief run at Garcia only to fall back. Ernie Els got to six under with birdies on three of his first six holes but played the remaining holes in one over and tied for fourth place. Even after missing his short birdie putt on the second hole, Stricker got to seven under with a birdie on the 4th, but he made four bogeys and no birdies the rest of the way and tied for eighth.

The wildest scorecard of the day belonged to Andres Romero, who threatened to make it an Argentine double in the U.S. and British Opens until going three over for his last two holes to finish at six under, one out of the playoff. Romero made 10 birdies in all, including six on the back nine to go along with two double-bogeys and a bogey. He would have won had he been able to avoid either the gorse bush that swallowed his approach shot after it bounced off a marshal on the par-4 12th hole or the concrete retaining wall of the Barry Burn that catapulted his second shot out of bounds on the par-4 17th. He finished third.

In the end, Harrington said it was his familiarity with links golf that won him the tournament Sunday. He played it as an amateur coming up in Dublin. He played it last weekend, when he bypassed the Scottish Open, played at the decidedly non-linksy Loch Lomond, in favor of the Irish PGA Championship at the European Club. He won that in a playoff, too.

And so, when he faced his 162-yard approach shot on the first hole of the playoff, he knew it was a 7-iron, which in the cold air and slight breeze wouldn't travel its usual 180 yards. Just like he knew, he had to tell himself he knew, that he wasn't dead after making such a horrible mess of the 18th hole.

"I wouldn't for a second say I was as comfortable today as I was, say, in the Masters at the start of the year, or the U.S. Open last year," Harrington said. "Those were real good days. Today I just worked hard and drew on all my experiences of playing links golf and honestly convinced myself I was going to win."