Monday, August 11, 2008

The 19th Hole: The Void is Filled

After the US Open, golf observers were concerned about identifying the player that would assume the position of best golfer other than Tiger Woods. It appeared that there were a number of candidates for the position.

At first, it appeared that Kenny Perry may be the man to take on the task. With two wins in three weeks, Perry looked to be turning back the clock while surging to career heights. But, after skipping the Open Championship to play on the PGA Tour in Milwaukee instead, it appears that Perry has lost some of that momentum.

Then came Anthony Kim. The young American has been having an excellent season, including a win at Tiger’s AT&T National. He had a fantastic effort in his first encounter with links golf, but has been in the middle of the pack recently.

Of course, there have been mentions made of the usual suspects – Garcia, Mickelson, and Vijay Singh come to mind. Despite some success this season for all of them, none has stepped up with real significance in Woods’ absence.

From all of the faces in the crowd, Irishman Padraig Harrington has clearly asserted himself as the man Woods must beat upon his return to competitive golf. First, Harrington defended his Open Championship in almost impossible conditions at Royal Birkdale. Then, on Sunday at the PGA Championship, Harrington was aggressive, clutch, and everything he needed to be to capture his first major championship on American soil.

Making crucial putts on each of the final three holes, Harrington came into the house in 32 strokes and finished with 66. On the last hole, his major championship experience proved invaluable. After driving the ball into a fairway bunker, Harrington chunked his bunker approach into the long, thick rough. With a playable lie, Harrington hit a crisp 7 iron to fifteen feet. If he could make a par, he would almost certainly win the championship. Putting before Sergio Garcia, who was threatening a par of his own that may force a playoff, the Irishman struck a perfect putt right into the heart.

In that moment, Harrington was going through so many emotions. From the look on his face, one had to be shock. Maybe he was shocked that he was again beating Garcia for a major championship. Certainly, the situation must have dawned on him that he had just won consecutive majors. Perhaps even, deep in his head, he realized that he had won his third major championship in his last six tries.

During the course of approximately a month, Harrington went from an Irish hero to a golfing legend. He defended his Open title with one of the most incredible approach shots in history – his 5 wood to the revamped 17th at Birkdale. Then, he proceeds to start hot and finish hotter at an extremely difficult golf course. In both victories, Harrington demonstrated so many of the same things that we have come to expect from the player most noticeably absent from the proceedings. He showed that he had unwavering confidence, a tremendous eye for strategy, and a pair of steady hands that just seemed to guide the ball to his destiny.

Padraig Harrington elevated his status in a way that no other player could have given the circumstances. He again won a major championship and proved that he is definitely not a fluke. There is a legitimate reason to discuss the Paddy Slam after getting proof positive that this man can win anywhere on any stage. And, upon Woods’ return around the Masters next year, there will be a threat for his next attempt at the single season Grand Slam. In fact, Tiger Woods will have to stop Harrington’s march to owning all four of the game’s most cherished trophies.

On Sunday, the game of golf won by virtue of Paddy Harrington capturing the PGA Championship. A new challenger has emerged to become the best player in the world and it was almost unimaginable one month ago. Even better, fans will be waiting in anticipation to find out if the legend of Padraig Harrington can grow out of the shadow of another icon of the sport.

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