Harrington looks to turn tables on Tiger

ATLANTA -- Being paired with Tiger Woods can be uncomfortable, to say the least. There are the extra eyeballs fixed on your every move; the rustling of spectators clamoring for the best vantage point; the plethora of media, photographers and security inside the ropes.

It is simply part of the working life for the game's No. 1 player, but those who enter that arena without a good bit of mental fortitude can walk off the golf course with their confidence shaken, their pride pummeled.

Not Padraig Harrington.

The Irishman keeps coming back for more.

For the ninth time this year on the PGA Tour, the three-time major champion will be paired with Woods when they tee off Saturday morning at East Lake Golf Club in the third round of the Tour Championship. With more wet weather expected in the Atlanta area, tee times were moved up to 8 a.m. ET with Woods and Harrington going off in the final group at 10:20 a.m. ET.

And it is doubtful that Harrington knows that he has bested Woods just once in their previous eight encounters. Or that he has failed to finish ahead of Woods in any of the tournaments in which they've played in the same group.

"I look forward to it," Harrington said Friday after playing with Woods. "It's where you want to be. If you're playing with Tiger, you're going to be generally there with a chance to win the tournament."

And that certainly is the case here at the fourth and final FedEx Cup playoff event, where Woods' 68 in Friday's second round gave him a 1-shot lead over Harrington and Sean O'Hair through 36 holes.

Harrington will need to win the tournament and have somebody tie Woods for second place in order to win the FedEx Cup and the $10 million bonus, but he's surely more concerned with winning, period.

He has been a frequent contender lately, but it wasn't until his August showdown with Woods at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational that Harrington was in the mix on the PGA Tour, a long drought that dated to the PGA Championship a year earlier.

At the time, Harrington had won three of the past six majors, including two in a row. He had risen to No. 3 in the world. Woods was out of the picture recuperating from knee surgery, and Harrington was voted PGA Tour and European Tour player of the year for 2008.

Then came the work on Harrington's golf swing that he has patiently discussed about a million times, never wavering, never getting discouraged.

The results have been better, with Harrington posting five consecutive top-10 finishes.

But only once did he finish ahead of Woods, and never in a tournament in which they played together.

In fact, the only time Harrington beat Woods this year in a head-to-head encounter was during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. The Irishman got Woods that day 68 to 69 at Bay Hill in a tournament Woods went on to win.

During those eight rounds -- including Woods shooting 68 to Harrington's 69 Friday -- Woods has bested Harrington by 22 shots.

No matter.

"I think it's always best to be playing and watching the No. 1 guy," Harrington said. "It's always nice to be trying to push him. They key for me is to make sure I push Tiger to be a better player. That's got to be the key when you're out there. The more times you play with him, the more comfortable you get.

"I certainly enjoyed today. I've enjoyed most of the rounds we've played over the last couple of weeks. Keep it going, really. As I said, the way to do it is to play your own game, but I've been quite comfortable out there."

Things would have been much more comfortable for Woods had he converted a couple of back-nine putts that were all but conceded to him after hitting excellent approach shots.

He knocked it on the par-5 15th in 2, had a 5-footer for eagle, and saw it slide past the hole. At the par-4 16th, Woods hit his second shot to 3 feet, then lipped out the putt. And when he missed the green and made a bogey at the par-3 18th, Woods had let three shots get away over the final four holes.

And that means hope for several players.

Harrington and O'Hair are just a stroke back and either could win the FedEx Cup with a victory and Woods not finishing solo second.

Ernie Els worked his way into contention with a 66 that left him in fourth place, 2 strokes back. And Jerry Kelly and Kenny Perry are tied for fifth, 3 strokes behind Woods.

But for a good bit of Saturday, all eyes will be on the last pairing. No doubt, Woods has deep respect for Harrington, as was made clear when the game's No. 1 player called out a rules official who affected the Irishman during the final round of the Bridgestone.

Woods could have let that go -- the group was put on the clock for slow play -- but he more than once went to bat for Harrington, saying it was wrong for such a ruling to come down under the circumstances.

"We've basically played our careers simultaneously," Woods said. "We played the Walker Cup against each other and turned pro about the same time. We've been out here for just as long.

"I know what he's done with [instructor] Bob [Torrance] and all the years of hard work obviously is paying off. It was a matter of time before he won some big events, and lo and behold, he's won three major championships. Certainly he has put in the work to accomplish that, which is something that we all respect about him."

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