Birkdale’s last Open winner recreates one of the greatest shots in Open history – and tells us why he thinks he can win it again
There have been 16 back-to-back winners of The Open, the last of them being Padraig Harrington, whose 2008 victory at Royal Birkdale came a year after he claimed the Claret Jug at Carnoustie.
In the final round, the Irishman trailed Greg Norman by one after turning in 37, but came home in a scintillating 32, with the shot of the Championship – and his career – coming at the par-5 17th.
With a two-shot lead after the 16th, Harrington found the middle of the fairway at 17 and elected to go for the green, off a downslope some 272 yards short of the target, wind hard off the left. Taking his favourite club – an 18° Wilson Staff FYbrid – he drilled a low draw that landed just short of the green and rolled up to within a couple of feet. From there, he sank the eagle putt and walked to the 18th tee secure in the knowledge that he had retained the Claret Jug.
The late Bob Torrance, Harrington’s wily coach, described the shot as “the best I’ve ever seen”. Now, nine years later, Harrington is stood at the very spot once again, attempting to recreate the shot. This time, though, there isn’t a Claret Jug on the line, or 50,000 people watching. Just TG and a TV crew, exclusively invited by Wilson Staff to see what happens. But we’ll let Padraig himself take up the story...
“In the circumstances that went with the shot, it is the greatest shot I’ve ever hit in terms of the quality of the strike, the situation and everything about it. I suppose it’s an iconic shot of The Open. How often do you see a player hit a shot, a big shot, that genuinely wins him the tournament? I knew this was the shot. I think I’m known for that. People remember it – it’s nice to hit a shot that people will look at and think ‘wow, I can’t hit that... and maybe some of my fellow pros.
“A good tee shot left me on a downslope with 246 yards to the front of the green, 272 to the ag. The problem was that the front left bunker was about 232 yards to carry with a hard wind coming in off the left. You could clearly see the crowds and gorse down the left, but I was feeling good and I hit my favourite club, my 5-wood again – my go-to club.
“At the time it was unheard of to hit a 5-wood 272 – it was miles to hit a 5-wood – though obviously not now. It was a miracle I hit it that far... a lot of people thought I’d hit a 3-wood.
“I started it out halfway between the grandstand on the left and the bunker with a draw and the last thing that went through my mind before pulling the trigger was ‘don’t hit it left.’ I had to physically pull a draw in a strong left-to- right wind and cover it, but you have to trust you’re not going to hit it left. And
I was delighted I was on a downslope because it presented the opportunity of hitting a hard, low shot which suited the wind conditions.
“I could have laid up, that wasn’t a huge issue. I could have left about 90 yards in a strong wind and the pin was up on the back tier. It would have been very easy to bounce the pin and go over the back of the green so that meant it was very easy to finish up short. But one thing I didn’t want to do was try andtwo-putt from 40ft, up the tier, risk a three-putt and score a six. “I thought ‘if I hit one good shot now
I’ve won The Open’, whereas if Iay up I’m putting it in the hands of Greg Norman. If I hit this shot, that’s it done. I was feeling good and I always go back to the Bob Torrance’s quote ‘it’s easy to hit a great shot when you’re feeling good, but it’s really dif cult to hit a good shot when you’re feeling bad’.
“Sure, my caddie (Ronan Flood) asked me if I wanted to lay up, but no chance. It suited my eye and I felt good about it. To win you have to do spectacular things at some stage, that’s the nature of winning, and when you’re in that situation, you’ve got to seize the moment. “The second I hit it I knew it was good. I realised I’d hit a great shot, but did I know it was going to be that close? No. But I knew I’d won The Open.
“Actually, and now you mention it, it’s one of the few times – probably the only one – that my caddie has said ‘good shot’ to me when the ball was in the air! It takes a lot to get a compliment from Ronan! We were that sure of what we were trying to do, which was essentially run it up the green. If it came up 20ft short and I had to putt up a tier, I’d have won The Open too...
“But I wanted the glory of walking down 18, I wanted the clarity that I could walk down 18 and enjoy the situation, especially after messing up the 72nd hole at Carnoustie a year earlier. I didn’t want to leave it any longer (eventually winning a play-off against Sergio Garcia).
“That was down to experience I’d gained over the years. A lot of experiences – good and bad – had got me to that situation and I’m now good at realising when I have to take the shot on and when I don’t.”
“As a kid, you dream of winning The Open in style, at that’s what I did at Birkdale. I went in as one of the favourites and with all the hype, getting the wrong side of the draw, I battled through. I played great, swung the club well and hit all the shots all week. If you were writing that script when you were 15-years-old, that’s exactly how you’d do it! I’d come to the 71st hole and hit a glorious golf shot that everybody remembers and then I’d get to walk down the 18th and wave to the crowds. It was very satisfying.
I can’t believe it’s the first time I’ve been back to Birkdale since I won. It just goes to show how busy life can be. To be honest you don’t want to be doing sentimental stuff, you want to be playing and trying to achieve more wins. But I see it differently now and I understand what I’ve achieved in the game and I can sit back and enjoy that. Any wins from now are a bonus.
I’ve still got the passion for the game, but it’s a different sort of passion. I can swing mentally I’m better – all those things I understand. But am I a better player? I don’t have the necessary fear anymore, but that doesn’t mean I won’t win again. It just means I sit back and enjoy it more. I’m at that stage where what I’ve done in the game, very few people are going to do going forward.
You’ve got to embrace winning three Majors. Not many players have achieved that, or indeed will go on to achieve that. I want to embrace that side of it and I just love being out here. Who wouldn’t want to do what I’m doing?
It’s more about enjoying what I’ve done now. I’ve realised I’m at the stage of my career where I’m better known for what I’ve done in the game than what I’m going to do, and I’ve got to accept that and enjoy it, even if I do win a fourth Major. Everybody gets a few bonuses down the road and my game is solid enough to make me feel that I could win another.
I was carrying a wrist injury which was an issue earlier in the week – I never played a practice round which worked in my favour, because I was the freshest guy on Thursday. However, after hitting a pitching wedge 80 yards from some shrubbery on the sixth without any pain, I didn’t give it a second thought for the rest of the week.
On Sunday I played alongside Greg Norman, who was unbelievably fair, a true gentleman. He made it easy for me to play with. I grew up watching him on TV and thought he was a hard man, but he couldn’t have been nicer. And when you win Majors, things like having a nice playing partner make a huge difference.
I do fancy my chances next month. I’ve got great control of my game at the moment, I’m in a great place and much more relaxed about who I am, and my game. Coming to a links course is a great advantage, too, and the great thing for me is that I’ve had this operation to replace a disc in my neck and I’m back swinging the club like a 20-year-old! I feel like I can compete with the young guys again.
Though I’m competing against 20-year- olds, I don’t feel like I’m giving them anything in terms of yardage. And I have experience on them, which counts for a lot at this level, especially when you’re in contention.
I’ve had problems with my putting but that’s now back. I did a very simple thing – I copied the young kids! They all mark their ball to line it up, but I’ve always fought against that. But finally I thought ‘these guys are so good, I’ve got to do this as well.’ So I did and it works, making a remarkable difference to my putting. If you can’t beat them, join them. But with every aspect of my game I think I’m a better player now.
I’ve never watched the 2008 Open.
Previously I’ve lived in the moment and thought that when you start reliving things, you’re kind of retired and I’ve focused on trying to win the tournament next week rather than reflect on past glories. But I’ve got over that now and I’m quite happy to relive the past, so maybe I should sit down at some stage and have a look.
Birkdale is a solid golf course, a good ball- striker’s course. If you hit the ball well you’ll do well. It’s relentless in asking you to hit good solid shots time and time again. You need to practice all your game, drive it well, hit your irons well, you will have some testing chips and putts. But it asks questions about your whole game
Harrington relished the opportunity to repeat his magical shot, but only succeeded in underlining what an amazing blow he struck in the most pressure cooker scenario of them all. Owing to the combination of a different wind, morning dew and longer grass, he came up short.
“But that’s links golf for you. It changes. Also, it’s tricky to recreate because to hit a 5-wood 272 yards you need the adrenaline pumping and to be leading a tournament. Plus, it’s tighter than I remembered! By the way, if I have a two- shot lead here in eight weeks, I know I’d go for it again. I don’t think I’ve ever laid up in my life.”