The true test of a champion is not just winning the title, it is successfully defending it and Padraig Harrington proved he is without doubt a great champion by winning his second consecutive Open Championship by four shots at Royal Birkdale.
The 36-year-old Irishman, who only confirmed he would play on Thursday morning before the first round after picking up a wrist injury, had to hold his nerve to win the title after a play-off at Carnoustie last year; this time, he made sure no extra holes were needed by coming back from two shots behind overnight leader Greg Norman on a dramatic final day to once again lift the Claret Jug.
In the process he became the first European to win The Openhere in nine attempts and the 16th player to win consecutive Opens. “It was important to win it a second time,” he said. “Not many players have won back-to-back majors, but I was trying to play that down before. Now I have won it a second time, it has taken me to a new level. Now I am looking forward to putting that jug back on the breakfast table where it has been all year.”
It was the final round the script writers could only have dreamt about. The reigning champion, wounded but determined, versus the ageing two-time Open winner and overnight leader, Norman.
Playing an entertaining supporting role was the colourful Cavalier character, Ian Poulter, who produced a stunning round of 69 to finish a deserved runner-up.
It was another day of high winds and as a result, it was difficult for anyone to make inroads into Norman’s two-shot lead. It was a case of Norman losing ground rather than anyone else gaining it.
Unfortunately for the veteran Australian, that is an eventuality that he is familiar with having led seven Majors on the final day and having won just once; the 1986 Open at Turnburry. The label ‘choker’ has been unfairly hanging over him ever since he let slip a six- stroke lead on the final day at the US Masters at Augusta in 1996.
Unlike the previous three days, where there was no pressure on the 53-year-old, the Australian went into the final round with a two shot lead and a level of expectation he hadn’t experienced for over ten years. He started nervously with three bogeys and three pars put Harrington ahead.
He stretched his advantage at the sixth to lead by two but then dropped two shots on the seventh and eighth and it was all square again. Suddenly, it wasn’t Norman who had a touch of the wobbles. Harrington went into the rough to the right at the ninth and his second shot stayed right; another shot was dropped and Norman went one shot ahead again.
But Norman had been uncharacteristically poor off the tee and he went wide left off the tenth tee into heavy rough and paid the price by dropping a shot while Harrington held his nerve to square things up again.
Poulter was the big mover from the pack. The Englishman dropped two shots over the irst three holes but pulled them back at the ninth and 11th and picked up four consecutive pars to move within one shot of the leaders. He then birdied the 16th with an agonising putt that dropped in via the back door to make it a three-way tie for the lead - but only briefly as Norman experienced the opposite luck with his putt at the 12th and picked up a bogey to slip to eight over, dropping another shot at the 13th to plunge into the pack at nine- over.
Now it was Harrington and Poulter sharing the lead. Poulter missed a birdie putt at the 17th to take the outright lead and Harrington birdied the 13th to go out in front. Poulter holed a sensational putt at the last for a 69 to stay on seven over and the ball was in the Irishman’s court.
Norman birdied the 15th to move to within a shot but Harrington birdied the same hole to lead by two with three to play.
He had the strength to withstand the pressure with a stunning second shot to within eight feet of the 17th and holed the putt for an eagle that gave him a four-shot lead going down the last.
They may have well given him the jug there and then, but that would have denied him the famous walk to the 18th green, and this year he was able to enjoy it without the prospect of a play-off.