SOUTHPORT, England — The morning after an Open Championship is a time for summation and reflection. The R&A has just announced, for example, that a record 30,000 orders of fish and chips were sold this week on the grounds at Royal Birkdale. But no breakdown was provided, leaving me somewhat peeved that my own contribution to the record has been minimized.
Padraig Harrington has no such concerns. The Irishman’s successful defense of the Claret Jug he won last year at Carnoustie is being celebrated across Europe, more than 100 years having passed since James Braid chalked up two in a row for the Euros. (In 1905 and 1906, it must be said, the Open field didn’t have as many non-Europeans as it has today. As Old Tom Morris is supposed to have barked, “Th’ Yanks willnae come unless they hae Marriott points.”)
The ever-smiling Harrington returned to Birkdale Monday morning, having stayed up until 4 a.m. sipping John Smith’s Smooth at the IMG hospitality house. “Winning a major last year, my biggest fear was not to go down the road of other players who have won majors and have done nothing after that,” he said. “Now that I’ve got two, I’ve got to think I’m in a different club now. I’ll have to look to see what else is out there. There’s lots of levels to move up to.”
Harrington, in other words, is already looking forward to new challenges, while I — because I am paid to do so — must spend a little more time reviewing the events of the past week. At the top of my list: How ’bout that Greg Norman? The third-round leader slipped to a 77 on Sunday and dropped into a third-place tie with Henrik Stenson, but blimey, what a performance. Norman is almost as old as I am, and he pretty much gave up golf a few years ago to raise money for a divorce settlement. None of that kept him from surprising us, his new bride Chrissie Evert, and himself with four days of creative shotmaking in a persistent gale.
“I don’t grind it out on the golf course any more,” Norman explained on Sunday. “I don’t practice, practice, practice. I just play when I like to play and practice when I like to practice.” But surely, someone prodded, his finish at Birkdale must draw him out of the boardroom and back to the practice bunker.
“Do I have to go and work on something?” Norman asked rhetorically. “Not really, because I’m not planning on playing too much golf.”
The runner-up at Birkdale, Ian Poulter, also deserves to be remembered — either for his final-round 69 or for his pink-infused wardrobe, I’m not sure which. Kudos, as well, to low-amateur Chris Wood, the 20-year-old beanpole who tied Jim Furyk for fifth; and even higher praise to Wood’s sister, who called him up last week to ask, “Are you at that golf thingy?”
“I don’t think she knows much about golf,” the English golfer ventured.
Here’s a judgment I wouldn’t have made at the beginning of the week: The rebuilt 17th hole is a winner. Many players complained that the long, narrow green had so many tiers and humps that a rolling golf ball had about as much chance of finding its target as first-round quitter Sandy Lyle has of becoming a Ryder Cup captain. “I think they’ll dig it up,” predicted Lee Westwood.
But they shouldn’t. The par-5 17th was statistically the easiest hole on the course, it was the most photogenic, and it produced the one unforgettable shot of the week: Harrington’s final-round 5-wood to three feet, which set up his eagle.
And finally, let’s hear it for the Lancashire wind, which had the grandstand flags popping like small-arms fire for the entire week. Harrington had to play in the worst of it on Thursday morning, when a stinging rain was part of the package. “When it’s windy like that, you battle one hole, one shot at a time,” he said on Saturday, when 50-mph gusts sent hats and hatters flying. “At the end of the day, sometimes, it’s hard to remember what you did earlier in the round.”
Norman agreed, saying, “I’ve never seen the ball react like it did once it hit its apex. Once it got above the sand dune line, it was at the mercy of the elements. It was incredible to watch, actually.”
And since watchability is the Holy Grail of championship golf, the Lancashire wind gets my vote for Man of the Match — or whatever term applies to a meteorological phenomenon.
If these Monday-morning musing seem flippant, I can leave you with Harrington’s earnest response to a question about his plodding, glamourless climb to multiple-major-winner status. “I’ve never looked like I’ve had the sort of surface talent that many stars of the future have,” he said with refreshing honesty. “Under-the-surface talent is far more important than what’s on top.”
I’d drink to that, but we’re all out of John Smith’s Smooth.