Sunday, July 20, 2008

British Open Back Nine Blog

Coming into today’s final round at Royal Birkdale golf course near Liverpool, England, 53-year-old Greg Norman led the field by two strokes.

Read that again.

Greg Norman, who entered this tournament as a glorified warm up for next week’s Senior British Open and the upcoming U.S. Senior Open, had endured the damp, windy conditions of the first three rounds to shoot two-over-par, two shots clear of last year’s Open champion Padraig Harrington.

Sure, there’s no Tiger. But I would challenge you to come up with a better story than the one with which we are presented. If the golfer formally known as the Shark can hang on to his lead, he will easily be the oldest player to ever win a major championship. (Julius Boros, at age 48, is the current record holder in that category. He won the 1968 PGA Championship in San Antonio.)

Prelude – As we work our way to the final nine, the blustery nature of this 137th Open has continued in spades, as it seems every player in the field has lost significant ground to Old Man Par. I would tell you more, but I had to go to Catholic Mass with my parents, which caused me to miss the first seven-plus holes played by the Norman-Harrington pairing. Evidently, attending an evening service was not an option. Gotta enjoy living back at home part-time.

As always, remember the five-hour time difference between the Eastern Time Zone and Greenwich time, which encompasses the British Isles. Thus, just add five hours to whatever time I record for the actual time at Birkdale.

11:27 a.m. – Norman tees off on the par-4 10th with a driver, probably the wrong club but he’s been busting it out there no matter what all day. He was once the best driver in the world, but he hit this one left, as did Harrington. By the way, the Shark is now at +6, but still on top by one over Harrington and by two over pink-pantsed Ian Poulter and fellow Brit Simon Wakefield.

11:34 – Norman missed the green with his second to the left, and his chip shot cruises about 10 feet by the hole. He’ll have some serious work to stay on top. Meanwhile, Padraig has a look at birdie from around 20 feet away, but pushes it by. Ahead on 15, Poulter takes a vicious rip at a tee shot and pures it down the middle on the par-5. Maybe a chance an eagle upcoming?

11:39 – Bogey for Greg as his putt misses to the left. As Harrington lifts his mark, his ball is blown a couple of inches to the side, something we saw a lot of yesterday. No penalty, since he wasn’t addressing the ball when it scooted. He then calmly pours in the par putt and is tied with the No. 646-ranked player in the world at +7.

11:43 – Poulter is near the green at No. 15 in two. If he can get up and down, he’ll be tied for the lead. 23-year-old American Anthony Kim, who has picked up his first two PGA Tour wins this year, just misses a birdie try and remains two strokes behind.

11:45 – Jim Furyk taps in at 18 for a one-over 71 on the day – simply incredible on an afternoon like this on the links. He finishes at +10 and is the leader in the clubhouse. Poulter couldn’t get close with his third and has to settle for a par at 15.

11:52 – At 11, Norman punches a 6-iron from 130 after drilling one down the middle on the par-4. He’s on the front portion of the green with Padraig.

11:54 – The Shark nearly rams one in from 40 feet, lipping it out on the high side! Now Harrington has a little three-footer…which he buries for his four. Norman, now taking forever over a four-foot par try, puts in right in the middle. Geez, he must have spend 20 seconds poised to strike; more like a Serpent than a Shark. ABC commentator (and this fall’s U.S. Ryder Cup captain) Paul Azinger says Norman’s hesitance made his palms sweat.

12:00 p.m. – By the way, Mike Tirico is on the mic for the play-by-play, with Azinger and Tom Watson in the booth alongside. Poulter knocks one to 15 feet on No. 16, as he is keeping the pressure on the leaders and hoping to post a solid final score.

12:03 – Poulter gets his birdie to trickle over the edge and in! He’s tied for the lead now, and if he can finish at +7 or even +6, you’ve got to love his chances to take home the Claret Jug.

12:06 – Norman is out of the lead. A poor tee shot at the par-3 12th leads to a bogey after his 10-foot par attempt burns the edge. It’s now Harrington and Poulter alone at +7. What’s the highest score to ever win a major? We might be challenging that today.

12:12 – The Poulter Push continues: he’s on the par-5 17th in two with a sizable eagle try on the way. On 15, Kim misses another opportunity to draw within one, slightly pulling a 10-foot birdie effort.

12:14 – Harrington hits a brilliant two shots to get hole high on the 499-yard 13th. Norman, who was forced to punch sideways out of a fairway pot bunker, comes up shy of the green in three. Big trouble for Greg, who has a depressed look as he trudges up to the putting surface.

12:20 – Ian Poulter gives a birdie a shot from just about 12 feet after a so-so lag. He juuust barely misses on the low side, and after a tremendous drive, that’s a tough par to take. Back at 13, Norman is in with his bogey, and here’s the defending champ Harrington with a birdie to take the lead outright! Three great shots on a lengthy par-4 and Padraig has a leg up on the rest. Just to reset: Harrington +6, Poulter +7, Norman/Kim/Henrik Stenson +9.

12:24 – I just got my answer on the highest score ever to win a major. It was the aforementioned Boros, who won the U.S. Open in the early ‘60s with a score of +9. If you’re just wondering about the British Open, look to Paul Lawrie’s winning total of +6 at Carnoustie in 1999, a.k.a. Jean Van de Velde’s torture chamber.

12:28 – Poulter, still appearing to be affected by his bad par at the 17th, hits his approach at 18 a little heavy. He’ll have to get up and down from in front of the green to finish at seven over.

12:32 – After blasting out of a greenside bunker at 14, Norman just nails a bomb from across the green to save his par! He remains three back as Harrington completes his routine par on the par-3. Stenson, the 17th-ranked player in the world, then rolls in a bird at 17 to improve to +8, two behind.

12:35 – The leaders move to the par-5 15th. British amateur Stephen Wood stumbles to a bogey finish, but still shoots 72 on the day, ten over for the Open. He is tied for fifth; if he remains there, he’ll be playing at Augusta in the springtime. Poulter now lining up a critical par putt from above the hole. 15-18 feet left for a one-under 69.

12:38 – Nothing but cup! Poulter guns one right in the center to finish up at +7. That putt seems enormous now, but it might become even more significant in about an hour. Harrington and Norman in the fairway at 15.

12:42 – Norman, going for it in two, hits a draw with a 3-wood that slips into a bunker at greenside. Padraig Harrington, sensing victory in his clutches, pounds a low hooking shot curling toward the center of the green. It’s on the front, and the Irishman can two-putt for a two-shot advantage.

12:48 – Phenomenal sand shot from Norman, as he sticks it to five feet. Harrington struck a solid first putt and is slightly inside the Shark for his birdie four. Greg nails his birdie up the hill and watches Padraig stalk his downhill effort.

12:50 – Harrington sneaks it in the left side and is two clear of the field with just three to go! Stenson completes his round with a bogey five, ending the Open at +9.

12:53 – Padraig and Greg both bomb it down the fairway at the 16th, a par-4. Norman needs to birdie at least two out of the last three, one would imagine. Poulter just needs to hope for a couple of Harrington hiccups, which seem unlikely at this point.

12:58 – Harrington hits the bulls-eye on another approach, stopping it below the hole into a strong wind. Norman, keeping it low and under the 33-mph breeze, knocks it pin high but 20 feet astray. He’ll have the first crack at birdie here.

1:02 – My mistake: Harrington is actually away here. He lags it tight, taps in a par and now we await Norman’s attempt.

1:04 – Improbably, the Shark comes up short on his look at a bird. That might have sealed his fate, but you never know at the end of a major, even with a leader who’s done it before. Kim makes bogey at No. 18; he led the field in greens-in-regulation, but his putting on the links greens, which are slower than their counterparts in the States, limited him to a +12 finish.

1:09 – Both in the final pairing are in good shape off the 17th tee: Harrington split the short grass with a 3-wood; Norman is down the right side after making a good swing with the driver.

1:13 – I believe Padraig Harrington just clinched the Open. He pummeled a 3-wood up into a helping wind that rolled through the end of the fairway, onto the surface and all the way to within 10 feet behind the role. Stunning! Norman follows with an uninspired try that finishes in the right rough. Man, you cannot emphasize enough how amazing of a shot that was. Padraig should be able to cruise home now.

1:18 – Norman chips to the back fringe with his third shot; he’s still away as he scans the break on his birdie putt. Despite his falling short today, it was a truly impressive accomplishment for Greg to hang with the young guys this week, looking to be in prime position up until the last few holes. He lips out another one and will have to settle for par at 17.

1:22 – Harrington got his eagle! One more pure putt finds the bottom of the cup. A truly marvelous hole and the Irishman is +3, four shots up on Poulter and five ahead of Norman.

1:25 – Using the left-to-right wind, Padraig puts a down payment on victory with a drive that ends up on the center stripe of the fairway. Norman kills his tee ball up the right portion of the hole.

1:29 – Harrington has 212 yards left on this closing par-4. And he comes up with another golden shot! The approach slides right by the hole, leaving him a makeable birdie. Norman pumps his second into the short-side bunker, drawing groans from an otherwise very appreciative crowd. Harrington now enjoys the luxury of walking up to the final green, knowing he has won the Open.

1:34 – The Shark, needing to hole the bunker shot to tie for second, sends it by the pin about 14 feet. His par attempt with new wife Chris Evert watching slides by on the low side. Norman shot a 77 to end up six shots back after starting today’s round ahead by a couple. Still, not bad for the old man…it was awesome to watch him play championship-level golf again.

1:37 – Harrington can’t get the birdie to fall, but his par makes him the fifth back-to-back winner of the Open in the past 50 years. Other than Tiger, he’s the first person to successfully defend a major title since Nick Faldo at the Masters in 1990 and 1991. On the final six holes, he was a remarkable -4. His 69 is among the better closing rounds by a major champion in recent memory. No Tiger, no finishing charge from the Shark, but it was still fun to see Paddy bring another Claret Jug home.

***

Later this afternoon, the Pirates look to avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the moribund Rockies. Let’s hope they can get it done.

Until later, hit ‘em straight folks!

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