Golf looks back on long-overdue triumphs

As much as golf looked the same in 2007, some of the greatest triumphs were long overdue.

Until a dramatic and calamitous Sunday on the cruel links of Carnoustie, the only time Padraig Harrington had reason to wave the Irish flag was during the Ryder Cup or perhaps a World Cup. But while his play-off victory in the British Open was purely an individual achievement, it was celebrated across a continent.

It was the first major for a European in eight long years, and the first for an Irishman since Fred Daly in 1947. “Hopefully, it will inspire the other players,” Harrington said.

The man who ruled one of the toughest courses in the United States was Angel Cabrera, a burly Argentinian who strutted down the fairways, puffing on a cigarette.
He delivered all the right shots in the US Open, none more significant than a booming tee shot on the final hole that stopped a slide and allowed him to hold off Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk.

It was the first major for an Argentinian in 40 years, dating to Roberto de Vicenzo’s victory in the 1967 British Open.

And then there was Justin Rose.

For years, the indelible image of Rose was that of an 18-year-old boy in the British Open at Royal Birkdale, holing a wedge on the final hole in 1998 to tie for fourth. He turned pro the next week, then missed 21 consecutive cuts until he slowly pulled himself out of the abyss and back toward respectability.

Redemption came on a nerve-racking November day with one putt that brought him two trophies. His 12-foot birdie on the second extra hole at Valderrama allowed him to prevail in the Volvo Masters, and it was enough for the 27-year-old to capture the European Tour Order of Merit for the first time.

“It’s been a long road to get here,” Rose said. “But I feel great.”

On an international stage, those three players figured the most prominently. But if there was a familiarity with the season, it was due to none other than Woods.

Woods reinforced his mystique as the world’s number-one player by widening his gap over the rest of golf. He won seven times on the PGA Tour, and right when it looked as though the majors would all be maiden victories, he came through with a record-tying round at Southern Hills to capture the PGA Championship for his 13th career major.

That’s more than the rest of the players in the top 10 combined.

“There isn’t any comparison,” Fred Couples said at the end of the year. “There’s him. And then there’s the mistakes Sergio [Garcia] makes, and Phil [Mickelson] and Ernie [Els] and Vijay [Singh] make. Tiger is the best player—by far.”

But he doesn’t win them all, and that’s what made 2007 so intriguing.

Woods is renowned for never losing the lead in the final round of the major, and while the record remains intact, there were a couple of oddities this year. He had the lead for about five minutes early in the final round of the Masters, only to fall behind and never catch up to unheralded Zach Johnson, a Masters champion who described himself as a “normal guy” from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“A giant has got to fall at some point,” Johnson said.

Woods again was tied for the lead in the final round at Oakmont until Cabrera hit seven-iron to three feet on the 15th hole, and Woods failed to make a single birdie on the back nine. Cabrera was upstairs in the clubhouse at Oakmont, watching to see if Woods could do something heroic to catch him. Not this year.

“I beat everybody here, not only Tiger Woods,” Cabrera said.

The best major was the oldest major, and the British Open brought redemption not only for Europe, but also for Carnoustie. The last time a European had won the claret jug was in 1999, also at Carnoustie, when Paul Lawrie stormed from 10 shots behind in a final round that even now is known more by the shocking collapse of Jean van de Velde, who made triple-bogey on the last hole and lost in a play-off.

Carnoustie was ridiculed as being tricked up, and it proved to be a fair test this time around. That didn’t spare the gallery some theatrical moments.

Garcia had a three-shot lead going into the final round, but it became a free-for-all featuring Garcia, Harrington, Els and Andres Romero. Harrington seized control with an eagle on the 14th, and he had a one-shot lead going to the notorious 18th hole on a course reputed to be the toughest links in golf.

Then, it was almost as though the spirit of Van de Velde arrived in the cool air off the North Sea.

Harrington’s tee shot bounced along a bridge over Barry Burn until it disappeared into the chilly water. After a penalty drop, his five-iron was struck so poorly that the Irishman hung his head and looked up in time to see it go in the burn again. The next shot was the most pivotal. After another penalty drop, Harrington hit a pitch from 50 yards to five feet behind the flag, which he holed for a double-bogey.

“I never let it sink into me that I had just thrown away the Open championship,” he said.

Garcia made sure of that. The Spaniard hit three-iron into a bunker and missed his par putt from 10 feet. In the four-hole play-off, Harrington seized the lead immediately with a seven-iron to 10 feet for birdie, a two-shot lead when Garcia made bogey.

Three holes later, Harrington—and Europe—had a major in hand.

Woods’s most memorable shot at the PGA Championship might have been a putt he missed. He began piling up birdies, saving his round with an unlikely par on the 12th, and he came to the 18th hole only 15 feet from the first 62 in major championship history. The putt spun 270 degrees around the hole, and Woods dropped his putter in disbelief.

“It would have been a nice little record to have,” he said. “A 62-and-a-half is all right.”

He shared the record, but not the trophy. Woods won the PGA Championship by two shots over Woody Austin, whose runner-up finish put him on the Presidents Cup team where he make quite a splash—literally.

Austin fell face-first into the water while trying to hit out of a hazard at Royal Montreal. It was a comical moment in an otherwise routine victory for the Americans, who seem to thrive in team competition in non-Ryder Cup years. Along with winning the Presidents Cup, the Americans won for the second straight time in the Solheim Cup, and they won the Walker Cup in Ireland.

A new year beckons, with most of the attention on whether Europe can make it four straight victories in the Ryder Cup. Nowadays, that’s about as certain as Woods being number one and adding to his collection of majors.—Sapa-AP

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