SOUTHPORT, England - In the end, as so many had anticipated, it indeed was an old story that dominated yesterday's conclusion to the 137th British Open.
But it was not the nostalgic return engagement of a once-great legend. Instead, it was the repeat performance of a fan favorite, although Irishman Padraig Harrington demonstrated an uncanny sensitivity to the proceedings that had unfolded at Royal Birkdale.
"I did say to him coming down 18 that I was sorry it wasn't his story that was going to be told," said Harrington, who was minutes away from an embrace with the claret jug for a second straight summer, though he felt a tinge of pain that it was coming at the expense of his 53-year-old playing competitor, Greg Norman.
"I did feel that, but I wanted to win myself. In this game, you have to take your chances when you get them."
In ripping winds that seemed at times strong enough to move even the tall and proud sand dunes of this great links, Harrington had indeed seized the opportunity. But after crafting a splendid final round of 1-under-par 69 to finish at 3-over 283 and secure a four-stroke victory that he knew was cause for celebration across the Irish Sea in his native land, Harrington smiled for himself, but then for Norman, too.
"It would have been," he said, "a fantastic story."
No one in attendance would have argued. Ah, but so, too, would there have been unanimous agreement that a Nor man victory would have been a fairytale ending that was no match for the reality of Harrington's brilliance, particularly when the setting is a classic links course.
"The way he finished? A true champion finishes that way," said Norman.
Norman's two-stroke lead to start the final round had disappeared in a series of errant shots and putts that slipped wide after having fallen in each of the first three rounds, but, even through his disappointment, Norman could see the true champion had been crowned. The pain of his 77 -289 that had left him in a share of third with Henrik Stenson (71) behind runner-up Ian Poulter (69), was very real, said Norman, so he chose instead a nod toward Harrington.
"Very impressive," said Norman. "He finished strong today."
It will be the sterling stretch of golf coming home that will resonate whenever it is recalled how Harrington became the first European to successfully defend a British Open title since James Braid in 1906. Having played give-and-take with Norman for the first 12 holes - Harrington going from two down to two up over the first six holes to one down thanks to three consecutive bogeys starting at the par-3 seventh - the Irishman made a clutch 5-foot putt to save par and get back into a tie for the lead at the par-4 10th. Two holes later, when Norman made his sixth bogey in 12 holes, Harrington figured he had gone back in front by one, only to take notice of roars filtering in from the par-4 16th.
Poulter, determined to become the first to win the British Open while dressed in pink, had coaxed a 20-foot birdie putt into the hole at the par-4 16th to get to 7 over, tied with Harrington.
"Oh, he must be going well," Harrington told himself after crossing paths with English fans cheering on their countryman, Poulter. "But I just put it to the back of my mind. I stayed focused."
There had been just one birdie at the 499-yard, par-4 13th when Harrington stepped to the tee and delivered a bullet of a 3-iron into the heart of the fairway. Conservative, yes, "because it left me a long way back," said Harrington, but it was the way he had decided to play this grueling golf course. With 210 yards to the front of the green, Harrington reached for a 6-iron, but was called off by his caddie, Ronan Flood.
"He convinced me to go back to the 5 [iron]," said Harrington, who caught the shot flush and watched as it held its line while riding the wind. Fifteen feet is what he was left with and when that roll dropped perfectly, the Irishman was 6 over, leading by one over Poulter and by three over Norman, who made yet another bogey at the 13th.
If there was hope for Poulter, it would come in two forms. He needed to birdie the par-5 17th, the easiest hole on the course, and hope that Harrington faltered. Neither scenario played out.
Poulter hit a poor third shot into the 17th, settled for par, then scrambled to par the 18th. But as he worked his way to the practice range, Harrington put a bear hug on the claret jug. If it was the two-putt birdie at the 544-yard, par-5 15th that provided two-stroke breathing room, it was what he did at the 17th that offered a peek into the killer instinct that the 36-year-old has developed over a 12-year pro career strengthened by early disappointments.
"The 5-wood," he said, "is my favorite club in the bag," and oh, how he showed why. Using it off the tee, then off the fairway, Harrington hit two shots with such precision that his ball came to rest 6 feet from the hole. For the second time in four days, Harrington made eagle at the 17th and you could hear the roars all the way from Dublin, the Emerald Isle rocking with their hero's insurmountable four-stroke lead.
"I wanted to take it on," said Harrington, referring to the challenge of reaching the 17th in two shots. "If I laid up and made par, I was giving Greg a great chance . . . "
But not to worry, because on this day, there would be few chances for Norman, almost as if he had used them all up over three magical days at Birkdale. He had missed the green and made bogey at each of the first three holes, watching his lead disappear, and he had fallen two back with another bogey delivered on yet another errant drive at the sixth. Though Norman regained a one-stroke lead thanks to Harrington bogeys at Nos. 7, 8, and 9, it was short-lived. On a day when he would hit just five fairways and five greens, Norman drove it poorly and was lucky to make bogey at the 10th.
Bidding to become the oldest player to win a major championship, Norman was tied with seven holes left and the fairytale script still had some life. At least until Harrington brought forth a storyline that repeated itself.
"Things like that will sink in over the next couple of days," said Harrington, who shared the moment for a second time with his son Patrick, 4, and for the first time with son Ciaran, just 8 months old. So, too, was his wife, Caroline, there to celebrate the moment. Soon, however, it was just Harrington and the claret jug - again.
"It's a little shinier than I remember," he said. "They obviously cleaned it up nicely."
It matched the shine on his game.
Jim McCabe can be reached at email@example.com.