Commentary

No. 16 proved the turning point

Originally Published: August 9, 2009
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AKRON, Ohio -- Before reaching the area where he would sign a scorecard Sunday that included a big, fat snowman, Padraig Harrington spotted his two sons and stopped for quick consolation.

"Double hug," he told Paddy, 6, and Ciaran, 2, as he lifted them both off the ground at the same time. "I need a hug."

Understood.

After the kind of day the Irishman endured at Firestone Country Club, a dozen pints of Guinness might have also been on order.

Harrington was witness to more history by Tiger Woods, who won the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational for the seventh time -- which also happened to be his 70th PGA Tour title.

Although Woods hit another highlight-reel shot -- an 8-iron from 178 yards to kick-in range at the par-5 16th -- to play a part in his victory, he also felt that Harrington got a raw deal when the players were put on the clock for slow play while standing on the 16th tee.

"Like I was telling him out there, I'm sorry that [rules official] John [Paramor] got in the way of a great battle because it was such a great battle for 16 holes, and we're going at it head-to-head and unfortunately that happened," Woods said. "I don't know why we were put on the clock."

Woods shot 65-65 on the weekend to win for the fifth time in 12 starts this year and second in a row heading into the year's final major, the PGA Championship, which begins Thursday at Hazeltine National in Minnesota. It was his 16th title in World Golf Championship events and the final tally shows a 4-stroke victory over Harrington and Robert Allenby.

But it was far from that easy. Harrington held a 1-stroke lead standing on the 16th tee, a 667-yard par-5 that is fronted by a pond. Woods birdied it three of the four days while Harrington played it in 3 over par.

The 4-stroke swing that occurred there Sunday when Harrington made a triple-bogey 8 was due in part, both players feel, to the slow-play warning that was issued before they both sent their tee shots into the rough. It caused Harrington, who hit his drive to the right, to speed up his play, and the hole turned into a disaster.

That led to a poor layup shot that came to rest just outside of a bunker and a third shot that went over the green. From there, Harrington -- with Woods' dramatic third shot a foot away from a sure birdie -- had a difficult flop shot down a hill to the pin that landed long and rolled into the water.

From the time Woods hit his third shot before tapping in for a birdie, Harrington hit the ball five times and added another penalty stroke.

"I think being on the clock influenced him," Woods said. "I'm sure he would have taken a lot more time on his third shot to try to figure out how to play it, where to place the next one. On the flop shot he had to get in there quickly and hit it. That's a shot you don't want to get in there quickly and hit it, you want to take your time and figure out exactly what you want to do. And I think by rushing like that, that it forced him to make a couple of mistakes."

Paramor is a long-time European Tour rules official whom Harrington said was simply following protocol for when a group gets out of position. But to put it in American sports terms, it was akin to calling a ticky-tack foul in the late stages of a basketball game.

What is difficult to comprehend, however, is why Harrington felt compelled to rush. It has been years since anyone has suffered stroke-penalty consequences for slow play on the PGA Tour. A fine, which could also be imposed, is like tip money to these caliber of players.

But because the group was put on the clock, an official using a stopwatch was on the 16th hole timing Harrington and Woods. You have 40 seconds to play your shot, an extra 20 seconds for a second shot on a par-5. Slow play is a chronic problem on the PGA Tour and yet nobody has received a penalty other than wrist-slap fines dating to the early 1990s.

So this was the day it was going to finally happen? Harrington, a three-time major winner, was going to break that trend during a duel with the game's No. 1 player? Rules are rules, but that seems highly unlikely given the circumstances.

"It's an awkward situation," Harrington said. "It's a difficult situation and you don't want to get out of position. If you're put on the clock, you always want to be nicely in position so you're not having to think too much. I got out of position with my tee shot, my second shot and my third shot, and that's a very awkward situation. I got out of position and just got myself out of the zone."

What a shame.

There was Harrington, giving Woods the fight we so rarely see out of any of his Sunday challengers, and it gets derailed in, uh, untimely fashion.

Three strokes back to begin the final round , Woods sent Firestone into a frenzy when he knocked his 5-wood approach on the green and eagled the second hole with a 30-footer. After birdies at the fourth and the fifth, he had made up 4 shots in five holes and led by 1. Another birdie at the ninth meant a front-nine 30.

And it could have been lower. Woods hit every green in regulation, and had birdie putts on every other hole, missing three from inside 15 feet. With Harrington making all pars, Woods had a 2-shot lead at the turn.

But Harrington would not go away.

"It was a great match, a great battle," Harrington said. "I was thoroughly enjoying it all the way through, really got into it through the end of the front nine and all the way through the back nine."

Harrington finally made his first birdie at the 11th, and then Woods missed his first green of the day at the 12th. Although he saved par there, Woods made consecutive bogeys at the 13th and 14th holes to fall a stroke behind Harrington -- who made 14 pars and a birdie heading to the fateful 16th.

"Paddy -- he's a grinder," said Woods, who is now just three victories behind Jack Nicklaus (73) and 12 behind Sam Snead (82) on the all-time PGA Tour win list. "Considering that he's won three majors of late, and I believe the last two he won he shot 32 on the back nine. So you know he's not going to go anywhere."

Harrington was hardly beating himself up afterward. He has played poorly for the past year since winning the PGA at Oakland Hills while working through a swing change that held up nicely this weekend. He shot rounds of 64-69-67 before his Sunday 72 that was tainted by that 16th-hole triple.

"I've got to work hard to play my game and I did that nicely today," Harrington said. "Tiger did play particularly well, that's for sure. As I said to him afterwards, 'We'll do battle many times again.'"

Yep, we'll see the two of them again on Thursday morning at Hazeltine.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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