For sheer tension, the 2007 Open at Carnoustie was hard to beat. It is the only Open I’ve worked at and it’s still one of the most enjoyable sporting events I’ve covered.
I was a producer for a sports news agency at the time and worked with an excellent cameraman for the whole week. We were up at the crack of dawn to follow Tiger Woods on a practice round, went to a Taylor Made event where I got a one-on-one interview with Justin Rose (one of the nicest guys in sport), and took in various press conferences ahead of the tournament.
Once the action proper kicked off on Thursday, as non-rights holders we weren’t allowed to film any action on the course. How it worked (and probably still works) was there was a mixed zone at the back of the 18th green where players would usually stop and talk to the gathered media. If a player had done particularly well, he would be whisked off to the media centre for a news conference.
There were exceptions, of course. We were hopeful of getting Colin Montgomerie in the mixed zone after the opening round but he dropped a shot at the last and the two extremely helpful and jocular press officers (a rarity) said, “No chance now!”
Woods, who was at the height of his fame and seeking his third consecutive Open title, only went to the media centre if he had to. This led to a rugby scrum of dictaphones and boom microphones (including my own) in the mixed zone and wide open spaces thereafter. For much of the media in attendance, once you had Tiger you didn’t need much more.
Anyway, there is a point to this preamble…
Sergio Garcia had been somewhat elusive at the pre-tournament Taylor Made do but led by two after a superb opening 65. His relationship with the media was already prickly given a recent slump in form and his switch to a belly putter. But Carnoustie added another dimension with journalists keen to ask him about 1999 when he shot 89 in his first major round after turning pro and left the course in tears with his mother.
At 26, Garcia was still showing the odd display of petulance, not least when he three-putted at the WGC-CA Championship in March of that year and spat into the hole. He was certainly not at ease with the media at the start of the tournament, but that changed as the week wore on.
What helped was that he was playing exceptional golf on a track less brutal than the ‘Car-nasty’ of 1999. Friday’s gusts of wind made scoring difficult but Garcia went round in level-par 71 to remain two in front. I’m now just recalling the aroma of his fellow Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez’s cigar after that second round.
That seemed to be the turning point for Garcia as he had managed to tough it out on the course. And his frostiness towards the media was melting away, leaving something resembling the happy-go-lucky ‘El Nino’ who burst onto the scene close to a decade earlier.
Saturday turned out to be moving day for Steve Stricker who equalled the course record with a flawless 64 to go six-under. But Garcia was showing no sign of letting up in front, carding a bogey-free 68 to end the third round three strokes ahead of the American.
Padraig Harrington and Ernie Els were in a big group tied for third on three-under, six off the pace. 2002 champion Els (he won it again in 2012 after Adam Scott’s late collapse) would have been closer but for a ‘snowman’ eight at the par-five 6th, one of the easiest holes on the course. Like Garcia and Els, Harrington shot a 68 which saw him bounce back from a 73 on the Friday.
The Irishman had been one of the European Tour’s leading lights for a good eight years after his first title at the 1996 Spanish Open. Despite not winning a tournament in 1999, four runner-up finishes saw him make his first Ryder Cup. He regained the winning thread in 2000 and, apart from a barren year across the pond on the PGA Tour, won at least one tournament a year until 2008.
He took the Order of Merit trophy in 2006 having claimed just one title, the Alfred Dunhill Links which he had also won in 2002. That tournament sees the field play a round at each of Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews before the final day at the home of golf.
Two months previously, Harrington had become the first home player for 25 years to win the Irish Open and links golf was clearly his bag. But had he left himself too much to do after that Friday 73?
Benign conditions on Sunday meant low scores were possible with Richard Green matching Stricker’s 64 from Saturday. Els birdied two of the first three holes but Garcia was showing few signs of nerves as he birdied the third to go to 10-under.
Then things started to turn. Garcia’s bogey at the fifth was the first of three in the space of four holes and Els made another birdie to go to six-under, now just one off the lead with Stricker. Andres Romero was also on a roll, picking up four shots in the first eight holes before chipping in from the sand on 11 to join Garcia in the lead.
As Stricker fell away, Harrington made stealthy progress towards the top of the leaderboard. He, went out in 33 before making his fourth birdie on 11 to go to seven-under. With Romero taking double bogey on the 12th, Harrington and Garcia shared the lead.
Els’ early surge had hit the skids and a bogey on 13 ended his chances. But it was all happening everywhere else. Romero roared back, birdying the next four holes to go into the outright lead on nine-under having started the day seven adrift.
That two-shot lead did not last long as he found thick rough off the 17th tee. Garcia, who had been playing well without sinking any putts, finally holed one on the 13th to move to within one of the errant Argentine. And then Harrington made eagle at 14 to go to nine-under.
Romero proceeded to go out of bounds and take a double-bogey six which killed his hopes. And then there were two – the two Ryder Cup stalwarts since 1999 – guaranteeing Europe its first major since Paul Lawrie at the 1999 Open.
Twelve months earlier, Garcia had been in the final group at Hoylake but failed to break par as Woods outplayed him. This time he was not going to lie down as he birdied 14 to join Harrington on nine-under.
But it was advantage Harrington over the closing holes with Garcia dropping his fourth shot of the day on the 15th. A par at the last would probably have given the Dubliner victory but, having looked like calmness personified for most of the day, he had an attack of the van de Veldes.
Harrington went into the Barry Burn not once, but twice. Somehow he escaped with a double bogey but a closing par would see Garcia break his major duck.
Easier said than done. Garcia found the sand with his approach and played out to 10 feet to leave him a putt for the Open. He struck it well but the ball didn’t come back quite far enough from the left of the hole and hit the rim instead of dropping.
That meant a four-hole playoff and Harrington drew first blood, birdying the 1st while Garcia limped to a bogey five after finding the greenside bunker. Two pairs of pars followed before both men were confronted with the 18th where they had both thrown away victory an hour earlier.
Harrington opted to lay up short but Garcia had a 15-foot birdie putt which he needed to hole to have any hope of extending proceedings into sudden death. Again, the ball lipped out, and his Ryder Cup team-mate tapped in for bogey to become Ireland’s second Open champion 60 years after Fred Daly triumphed at Hoylake.
While Harrington was delighted – seemingly in shock – after securing the Claret Jug, Garcia cut a disconsolate figure in the post-round briefing. The sparkle of the previous two days had gone and it would be another 10 years before he finally got that major monkey off his back at the 2017 Masters.
Twelve months later, Harrington retained the trophy at Birkdale despite almost pulling out of his title defence with a wrist injury. He also won the US PGA that year for his third major success. There then followed a barren run of eight years before he took the Portugal Masters in 2016.
After Garcia’s long overdue major triumph, Harrington revealed that his rival had been less than gracious in defeat at Carnoustie.
He told RTE 2fm, “I was as polite and as generous as I could be. But he was a very sore loser, and he continued to be a very sore loser.”
While they have played together in several Ryder Cup teams, Harrington admits, “We say hello to each other every day we meet, but it’s with gritted teeth, there’s no doubt about it.”
Garcia may be a more mature character these days, but clearly some bitterness between the pair remains.
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Also published on Medium.