It’s been a long, arduous road back to the winner’s circle for Padraig Harrington, whose last victory on the PGA Tour came at the 2008 PGA Championship. Similar to the past seven or so years, Harrington’s journey was filled with ups and downs before he closed out Daniel Berger on the second playoff hole to capture the Honda Classic on Monday.
On the first playoff hole, the 18th, Harrington and Berger both laid up on the reachable-in-two par-5 and made routine pars after missing their birdie attempts from 24 feet and 12 feet, respectively. Next up, they stepped up to the par-3 17th, which was somewhat critical for the two players in regulation in different ways, with Harrington making a costly mistake and Berger hitting a superb shot to eight feet that led to a birdie.
Harrington, who secured a spot in the event via a sponsor’s exemption, almost lost the tournament on the 17th in regulation after he hit a 5-iron in the water and made a double-bogey. However, he got his redemption on the difficult hole in sudden death, knocking it to three feet, while nerves may have gotten the best of Berger, and the 21-year-old rookie found the drink off the tee. Though Harrington missed the birdie putt, it was already over and he tapped in for par to seal the victory.
“I never have trouble hitting a big shot at a big time,” said the 43-year-old Irishman. “Sometimes I struggle with, like I have the lead and I’m trying not to bail out on 17 when I was playing it. I just was making sure not to hit it left and I did make a bad swing.
“I’m a better player when I have a lot of clarity. So when I came back to it in real time (in the playoff), I had to hit the shot. There’s no choice. I’m good at that: When my back’s to the wall I tend to hit the shot. You know, you could see that today, the last nine holes, whereas when I got to 9-under par, I should have been able to go away from the field at that stage. But I do struggle in that situation. But hopefully going forward now, as I said, I picked up something in my game.”
For Berger, the rookie, who shot a final-round 64, took the loss as a positive learning experience.
“If you told me I was going to finish solo second when the week started, I’d probably take it,” said Berger, who has three top-10s this season. “Right now, not as happy as I wish I was. But it’s just a good learning experience. Won’t be the first time and won’t be the last time, so just look at it as that.”
Heading into the final round of the Honda Classic late Sunday afternoon (due to weather delays Thursday-Saturday), Harrington trailed 54-hole leader Ian Poulter by three shots.
As the leaders made the turn on Monday morning at PGA National, Harrington trailed by Ian Poulter by five shots and Patrick Reed by three. Then, what unfolded — players throwing up left and right — was quite unexpected, not to mention unbelievable.
A series of miscues for Poulter and Reed dropped them out of contention. Poulter, who held a three-shot lead entering the final round, posted an unfortunate triple-bogey on the par-4 14th to pretty much kill any momentum he had and ultimately end his run at winning his first stroke-play event on U.S. soil.
“There’s lots of ifs and buts, but you know, my tee shot on 14 was out of position,” said the Englishman. “I’ve hit the tree. It’s gone right in the hazard. Buried in the bunker. I mean, that hole just killed my day.
“It’s a shame. There’s lots of pluses with how I’ve played all week, but there’s nothing like handing the golf tournament away. It makes you feel pretty sick.”
It appeared for a moment that Harrington might have also thrown away his chance at winning (or getting into a playoff) after he plunked a shot into the water on the par-3 17th in regulation. Worst of all, he dropped out of the lead at seven-under to five-under, and with Berger safely in the clubhouse for over an hour at six-under, it meant 18 was a must-birdie for Harrington.
Despite finding himself in a less than ideal position off the tee on the par-5 18th in the left fairway bunker, Harrington laid up and then hit a wedge to 15 feet — and it was a must-make situation for the three-time major champion. Once he finally stroked the putt, there was never a doubt it was straight in the hole for a clutch birdie to force the playoff after posting a final-round even-par 70.
What was massive for Harrington was the break he caught when the final round was suspended due to darkness on Sunday evening.
“It was a big break for me,” he said. “When I won in Indonesia five weeks ago, again we had a rain delay in the last round when things were not going well for me and momentum changed when I came back out. That’s all I was thinking about overnight. I says, look, has not gone well for me and now I’m the one chasing. The other guys are going to feel a little bit of pressure because they are leading. The shoe is on a different foot so basically I knew I could come out and challenge today.
“I like to be — I’m a better player when I’m attacking from behind. I tend to have better focus and be a bit more aggressive. I knew coming out today, my caddie said to me, with nine holes to go, he says, you’re four shots behind — I think we were four behind at that stage or even five. He said, would you have taken that the start of the week? Of course I would, especially on a difficult golf course.
“No leader — with the Bear Trap, so much trouble out here if you’re trying to protect something. It’s okay if you’re chasing and you can go after a few pins but if you’re trying to protect something and you’re leading the tournament, there’s an awful lot of trouble.
“Punters at home would have been watching this and seeing a lot of shots that they had be thinking, wow, I could do better than that. But this is the nature of the golf course. It really is a big, tough challenging. It’s a great test here. Jack has done a tremendous job with it. You know, I know players who don’t like coming here because it’s so tough. It’s one of those golf courses, when you get yourself in contention, it is a little bit uncomfortable, but that’s the way it is.”
After play was suspended last night, Harrington stuck around and practiced putting in the dark for at least 45 minutes and worked with Dr. Bob Rotella on his stroke. His persistence and work ethic paid off.
“I practiced my putting last night, and I got something going again with my putting,” said Harrington. “I came out here today, and one of the things that helped change my putting around was if I had a 10-foot putt to win on the 18th green, actually a 15-footer as it turned out today, I wouldn’t want anybody else to putt it. So as much as I was struggling, I still would choose myself to read that putt and hit that putt.
“That gives me confidence, and my wife reminded me of that this morning, actually, before I went out; that, you know, just if I had a choice, I would pick me. I wouldn’t pick anybody else to hit the putt. I stood over the putts I wasn’t confident, but, you know, I wasn’t getting in my way. It wasn’t like, oh, this is it. I just, okay, hit the best putt you can, run it at the hole and thankfully a few of them did run into the hole.”
Harrington also found something that helped with his swing during the Northern Trust Open, which was crucial to his victory and keeping his focus.
“I had a bad day on the golf course last Saturday, and we were out early and we were tired,” Harrington recounted. “I was sitting around, and I was thinking about, you know, I was tired and I heard one or two players say, ‘No, I’m finished for the day, heading home. They wouldn’t go down to the range.’
“I really wanted to leave. I said: ‘No, I’ll go down to the range,’ and I found something down there. Again, nothing to do with my technique. I found something to do with my focus, and I got a little bit of peace, and probably for 50 percent of the time this week, I had peace out on the golf scores and I hit plenty of really nice golf shots. I hit plenty of poor ones, but I definitely was in a better place.”
With this win, Harrington secures his sixth victory on the PGA Tour and his second at the Honda Classic — he also won this tournament in 2005.
Though he won the Bank BRI Indonesia Open on the Asian Tour this past December, it’s no secret that Harrington has struggled in recent years. His world ranking plummeted to an 18-year low of no. 385 on December 1, 2014. (Interesting enough, heading into the Honda Classic, Harrington was ranked no. 297 — the same as James Hahn who won the week before at the Northern Trust Open.) Last time Harrington finished in the top 10 was the 2013 FedEx St Jude’s Classic. His form had fallen so far off the grid that he lost his fully exempt status on the PGA Tour for the 2014-15 season and has been playing largely courtesy of sponsor’s invitations.
However, now that he’s a winner again, Harrington moves to no. 82 in the world rankings and earns an invitation back to the Masters.
“The one thing you learn is you don’t win as often as you think,” he said. “I’m just enjoying winning The Honda Classic. I’ll take it, whatever it is, a week or two, enjoy it and that’s it.
“It’s not about what it means to my career or what it means going forward. You don’t win that often. When you win, make sure you enjoy it. So that’s where I’m at the moment.”