For Harrington and Garcia, less than an inch separated success and failure

SOUTHPORT, England -- The ball somehow failed to drop. It was an occurrence that later became just one more example of fate denying Sergio Garcia a major championship. It's been well documented how the Spaniard reacted in the aftermath, choosing to blame a higher being for his Open Championship defeat a year ago at Carnoustie.

But what if that putt had fallen? Would Garcia now be considered a grand champion? And would Padraig Harrington be viewed as one of the game's all-time chokers?

It is something worth considering on the eve of the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, where Harrington is trying to put the distraction of being the defending champion behind him while Garcia is still in search of his first major title.

Garcia, 28, who won the Players Championship in May and had a runner-up finish two weeks ago at the European Open, has done his best to put the drama behind him and declines even to speculate on how much a half-inch might have changed his life.

"I don't know," Garcia said. "I will never know."

Harrington, 37, completely understands.

It often is forgotten how the Irishman came to his place in the playoff at Carnoustie. He had overtaken Garcia in the final round -- from 6 strokes back -- only to implode at the home hole, hitting two shots in the water and scrambling to make a miraculous 6. That up-and-down from in front of the burn turned out to be one of the most remarkable saves of the year. It was a double-bogey, yes, but it still gave him hope.

Not that it was much consolation as Garcia played the final hole with a 1-shot lead.

"When I hit the ball in the water the second time, I thought I had lost the Open," Harrington said. "It really hit me hard. I felt embarrassed. I felt I choked. All those feelings you should never have on a golf course.

"I was spiraling into the biggest hole in the world when I hit my third shot in the water. I felt like I let everybody down and was going to be judged to high heaven. I felt devastated. I've worked so hard, and this has happened."

Harrington could only watch as Garcia played the final hole, and after hitting his approach into a green-side bunker, the Spaniard blasted to 8 feet, setting up a par putt to win the Open.

Certainly Garcia had every right to question why the ball did not go in. He had the right line and good speed. Harrington thought Garcia had made it, and had the ball not trickled out of the cup, Harrington would have been remembered in the same light as Jean Van de Velde, another player who lost the Open at Carnoustie in excruciating fashion.

But the ball did not stay in, and it was on to a four-hole playoff, where Harrington prevailed by a stroke. But he knows just how much things could have been different.

"The real difficulty would be, when I got myself in a similar position again, how would I have felt about it?" he said. "Would I have found it hard?"

Garcia, of course, went through all the what-ifs. But a year later, he appears to have moved on, propped up by some newfound success with the putter and the big win at the Players.

"There are a lot of worse things than losing in an Open playoff," he said. "There were a lot more positives coming out of that week than negatives. … Obviously Sunday night and Monday were a little bit tough. Other than that, you think about the week, you think about everything you did, and you realize that you did the best you could. I felt like I hit a great putt in regulation to win the Open. Unfortunately it didn't go in."

Harrington has not won since his Open victory. His best finish was a tie for third at the Northern Trust Open in February. He did tie for fifth at the Masters, and he shared fourth place the week before the U.S. Open at the Stanford St. Jude Championship.

But he has slipped to 15th in the world rankings, while Garcia has risen to No. 7.

And yet, they are viewed quite differently. All because of the vagaries of one 8-foot putt.

"I am aware myself of the twin imposters of success and failure, how similar they are," Harrington said. "Over the years I've done some great things and looked like I've lost tournaments, and I've won tournaments where I've struggled home and won it.

"So I realize the difference between success and defeat, and all players have to manage that area of the game because when you do win, you're put up on a pedestal and everything is great. And when you don't win, it's very easy to be cut down at the knees.

"To be honest, there's not much difference."

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