There were all kinds of delicious implications had Padraig Harrington hung on to defeat Tiger Woods at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational on Sunday, and the pundits were salivating.
As Woods sat out the second half of 2008, Harrington stole his mantle and won the British Open and PGA Championship. Not that the Irishman seemed to mind Woods's company. He had twice beaten the great one head-to-head, and even teamed with Colin Montgomerie to thump the U.S. "dream team" of Woods and Phil Mickelson at the 2004 Ryder Cup. With the 2009 PGA Championship just days away — Harrington and Woods are scheduled to play together the first two rounds at Hazeltine — it seemed as though golf had found the one man immune to the Tiger mystique.
On the par-5 16th hole, Woods hit a jaw-dropping, 180-yard 8-iron to within a foot of the flag for a tap-in birdie. Harrington responded by making an equally unforgettable 8, and Woods coasted to a final-round 65 for his 70th Tour victory. Woods is third on the all-time wins list, behind Jack Nicklaus (73) and Sam Snead (82). It was also his seventh triumph at Firestone Country Club's South Course, the first time a player has won that many times at a single PGA Tour venue, and his second consecutive win. He won by four over Harrington (72) and Robert Allenby (66). (Read more about Tiger's win in PGA Tour Confidential, featuring our experts and PGA Tour pro Brad Faxon.)
"I had a situation where the wind was in my favor, and I hit a good shot in," Woods said of his highlight-reel approach on 16, where he had pulled his tee shot into the trees and was forced to pitch out sideways. "It carried far enough. I was surprised it spun back that much considering it was downwind."
Harrington made a special mess of the hole when his fourth shot, a chip, came out of the rough hard and ended up in the water. It was a result that Woods hung partly on longtime European Tour official John Paramor, who put the final twosome on the clock on the 16th tee. That appeared to throw the deliberate Harrington off his game.
"I don't think that Paddy would have hit the pitch shot [into the water] that way if he was able to take his time, look at it, analyze it," Woods said. "But he was on the clock, had to get up there quickly and hit it."
Harrington was not as blunt in apportioning blame, but admitted that he rushed on No. 16 and saw his problems compounded when his drive found the rough well right of the fairway.
"You know, if you're going to go for the green in two you've got to hit [the tee shot] right down the right-hand side," he said. "I wasn't unhappy to have missed the fairway right. It's not the end of the world. I rushed my second shot chipping it out and didn't hit a good shot and obviously left myself in trouble. I hit a pretty decent third shot. Again, I had an awkward fourth shot. I had to go after it and probably rushed that a bit, as well. That was the end of that."
Harrington led by three strokes entering the final round, but knew he would face a battle on Sunday.
"Is that enough? Probably not," he said Saturday night.
Sure enough, Woods fired a stunning five-under-par 30 on the front nine, to Harrington's nine consecutive pars. The world's No. 1 player drew even with Harrington in scarcely more than an hour, going three under on his first four holes, and then snatched the lead with a birdie at the par-3 fifth.
The group was first told to speed up play on the sixth hole.
"Pretty damn good," Ian Poulter said of Woods's opening 30. "To be three back of Paddy at the start of the day, with the wind the way it is today, too, that's not too shabby, is it?"
Harrington finally made a birdie at the par-4 11th to close the gap to one shot, and regained the lead when Woods bogeyed 13 and 14. Harrington's best moment was a par save on No. 14. After rattling his ball around in the trees, he got up and down with a full wedge from the right rough. The save was reminiscent of his three major victories in 2007 and 2008, when he briefly ascended to No. 2 in the world.
"Paddy is just — he's a grinder," Woods said. "Considering that he's won three major championships of late, and I believe the last two he shot 32 on the back nine, you know he's not going to go anywhere."
At first glance Harrington was the victim not of Woods's aura but of one of the oldest, most common bugaboos in golf: water. His fourth shot, from behind the 16th green, was so poorly hit that it shot into the hazard like a Labrador retriever. Had he been spooked by Woods's amazing 8-iron, the kind of towering, almost super-human shot only he can hit?
"That didn't affect me at all," Harrington said. "I was one shot ahead. I was in good position at that stage."
Then was it Paramor's hastily applied stopwatch that rattled Harrington and momentarily transformed him into a 20 handicap? Or was it both the 8-iron and the stopwatch?
"Both," Woods said. "I think I hit a good shot that put a little heat on him, but then again, I think the worst he would have made [without being on the clock on 16] would have been bogey."
Regardless of what caused Harrington's meltdown at 16, by day's end it was all a familiar scene at Firestone: Woods was hoisting yet another trophy, and one of his most resilient challengers was heading to the next stop — to defend the last remaining major trophy on his mantle — with a Tiger-inflicted dent in his psyche.
To be continued at Hazeltine.