CHASKA, Minn. — The temptation is strong, but I will fight the urge. Tiger Woods took apart Hazeltine National on Thursday with the precision of a rocket surgeon, and I needed all my willpower not to begin this column with two words: It’s over.
My willpower was aided by two other words: Padraig Harrington. He is the only reason not to give Tiger the trophy right now.
Woods is going to go low this week, and that easy, nearly flawless 67 was a powerful start. He could win by a touchdown.
But the defending PGA champion, Harrington, is also officially back on his game. He is the only player in golf right now who appears capable of hanging with Tiger. The toast of Ireland has the game, the experience, the putter and the spine to stand up to him. Three major championships mean never feeling intimidated by anyone.
Harrington reaffirmed his ability to keep up with Tiger in Akron last week. They dueled on the back nine, with Harrington retaking the lead from Woods and holding a one-shot lead until the 16th hole. You probably know what happened there. Woods staked an 8-iron shot to within inches and made birdie, while Harrington tried an impossible flop shot from a bad lie that led to triple bogey.
When Harrington said that shot is forgotten, I believe him. “It wasn’t a catastrophe,” Harrington explained. “It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t a catastrophe. I did think about it a lot Sunday evening and even some on Monday morning. But the minute I got to the practice round here and hit a few shots, my mindset moved on. That’s the great thing about golf, certainly for me. The minute I hit the practice ground, I become a real optimist and start looking forward.”
It is a little odd that Woods and Harrington crossed swords in Akron and then four days later played together again at the PGA. But Harrington shot a smart 68 on Thursday in a spotlight that negatively affects many players. It’s another reason to believe in him.
Thursday’s mood was considerably less tense than the previous Sunday, when their conversation largely ended after the first tee. “Today was more relaxed,” Harrington admitted. “I watched a lot of his shots. It’s amazing. I was thinking to myself how I noticed things today that I didn’t on Sunday, as I was so much into my own game. You can be a bit more relaxed on Thursday. Sunday’s the business day, and the first three days are about building up to that.”
It never hurts to have Rich Beem, among the funniest men on tour, as your third. With him in tow, there’s a guaranteed giggle coming somewhere in 18 holes. The trio even laughed when a ball bounced onto the 11th green while they were still putting. The 606-yard par 5 was into a brisk wind today and thought to be unreachable, but the long-hitting Spaniard, Alvaro Quiros, had other ideas.
“I first thought somebody must have chipped out and hit his third shot up there,” Harrington said. “When I inquired who was playing behind us and it was Alvaro, I said that’s got to be two of the biggest hits ever in golf. There couldn’t be anybody playing competitively who could’ve knocked it on in two today. It was phenomenal.”
Another wild card that could work in Harrington’s favor is his relative lack of preparation. When he won last year’s British Open, a sprained left wrist severely limited his practice rounds, and he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to compete. This week, he was so drained from his showdown with Woods that he took it easy early in the week — nine holes Monday, 18 on Wednesday. Maybe there’s something to this taking-it-easy thing. It seems to work for Harrington.
Success has a way of shrinking criticism. Woods heard plenty of talk earlier this year when he was perceived to be struggling during his comeback from major knee surgery. Five wins later, especially after Akron, most of that has gone away. Harrington took heat for making swing changes after a year in which he won two major championships. His only good showing before Akron was a win in the Irish PGA, a small tournament.
For him, an eternal tinkerer, it was simply part of an ongoing process. His left wrist tended to be cupped at impact. He has been working all year to get it slightly bowed instead. He thought the answer was to get some lag in his swing, which he tried to do using his arms. He recently determined that it was the club, not his arms, that needed to lag in his forward swing. And here he is, all squared away.
No one is questioning his decision to change his swing now.
Harrington has the skill set and the mindset to be Tiger’s rival. All they need are a couple of showdowns in majors. Harrington said he enjoyed being thrown into the Tiger pairing Thursday.
“If you’re playing with Tiger Woods, you’re doing well,” he said. “If you’re playing with him the first couple of rounds, you’re a marquee draw. If you’re playing with him at the end of the week, you’re always in contention. If you don’t want to be in that spot, you shouldn’t be playing golf. If you’re matched up with Tiger, it means you’re in the right place.”
It’s still early, but Harrington was clearly in the right place for the opening round. Maybe he drafted off Tiger, or maybe the enthusiastic galleries chasing Tiger helped him focus, but he kept Tiger in his sights.
“Normally, I would say in a major it’s not that important to shoot a low one the first day,” Harrington said. “You just want to stay in there. If we are going to experience tougher conditions this week, this might have been the day for an opportunity to shoot a good score. The fact that Tiger is five under and looks like he’s playing well, the key will be to make sure I’m moving away with him if he’s moving away. I got a three-shot start last Sunday; I don’t want to give him a three-shot start this Sunday.”
When they shook hands on the final green in Akron, Harrington promised Woods they would do battle again. Based on Thursday’s action, it might happen as soon as this weekend. Sorry, Tiger, but it’s not over yet. If we’re lucky, and Harrington plays the way he did at Oakland Hills or Royal Birkdale or Carnoustie, we’ve only just begun.