Sunday, July 20, 2008


THE LEPRECHAUNS were out in force but there was no fairy tale ending to the 137th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

Irishman Padraig Harrington, who became the first European to retain the Claret Jug for 102 years, is one of the most popular players on the professional golf circuit.

However, most neutrals were rooting for a 53-year-old Australian – Greg Norman – who, remarkably, took a two-shot lead into the final round.

Norman, still on his honeymoon after marrying former tennis great Chris Evert last month, was supposed to be yesterday’s man.

Yet here he was with a real chance of winning his third Open, 15 years after he last won the tournament at Royal St George’s in Sandwich, Kent, England.

Sadly, it was not to be. Norman could only manage a bogey-strewn 77 against Harrington’s superb 69, which gave him victory over Englishman Ian Poulter by four shots.

His five-wood approach to the 17th green, which landed less than six feet from the pin and set up an eagle putt, was the shot of the Championship. Even the absent Tiger Woods would have struggled to match that one.

Norman: "To say I'm disappointed is an understatement."

But while Irish eyes were smiling, neither Norman nor his new bride could hide their obvious disappointment.

He might have started the week with no expectations. But despite his attempt to downplay his chances going into the final round, you could tell he really believed he could win.

Victory would have gone a long way to erasing some of the many heartbreaking defeats he had to endure during his prime.

The Great White Shark finished runner-up in The Masters three times, most notably when he blew a six-shot lead in the final round to Nick Faldo in 1996. He was also second twice in both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship.

No man who has won a Major, let alone two, can be called a choker. But it’s fair to say that Norman’s ability merited more.

“It was a good week. Am I disappointed? Of course I’m disappointed. That would be an understatement,” he said. “I'm not as disappointed as I was in the 80s and the 90s, that's for sure. It's a different disappointment.

"When you put yourself in a position, you've got the lead, of course you want to close the deal; there's no question about that. But at the same time you've got to take a little stock of the situation, and again reality."

Harrington, himself, admitted that a wrist injury, which nearly forced him to withdraw from the Open, actually worked in his favor.

Wrist injury took pressure off the defending champion

“In hindsight, the fact that I didn’t have to play three practice rounds meant that I was fresh for the battle ahead, and it was a battle on the weekend,” said the 36-year-old father of two.

“Maybe having a wrist injury also took a bit of the stress and pressure off me. It was a good distraction.”

What a contrast to last year at Carnoustie when a double bogey at the last meant he had to endure a four-hole play-off with Sergio Garcia before lifting the Claret Jug.

“I knew my game was there. Once I got my drive away at 18 I knew I’d won it. It was an enjoyable 18th hole this time,” he added.

“Very few people have won back-to-back Majors. Winning a second sets you apart. There are a lot less people in the club.”

While Harrington headed home to celebrate, Norman journeyed to Scotland, where he will compete in this week’s Senior Open Championship.

Victory at Royal Troon was always going to be a more realistic target. But even if he achieves it, it won’t be quite be the same.

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