Final-round thrill ride ends in Harrington victory

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- As Sunday afternoon melted into Sunday evening, the British Open chugged a dozen double espressos and a half dozen Red Bulls, then washed everything down with some Mountain Dews. Any more caffeine and the tournament would have needed a padded room.

For pure golf insanity, it would be hard to beat what happened here at Car-weird-nie. It was 151-proof bizarro, the kind of day that rivaled the nuttiness of July 1999, when Jean Van de Velde and the 18th hole were joined at the hips, as they have remained ever since.

This time, it was Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington who donated pints of blood on the gruesomely difficult 499-yard, par-4 18th -- called "Home" -- then later in a four-hole playoff. In the end, Harrington left here with the Claret Jug and Garcia left with another what-if.

In case you care, Harrington became the first European in eight years to win a British Open. Scotland's Paul Lawrie did it on this very course in 1999 and, like Harrington, he needed a playoff to win.

But this wasn't about Euro-pride. It was about the best, most compelling day of golf since Van de Velde rolled up his pant legs and waded into the Barry Burn. Two Ryder Cup teammates -- an Irishman and a Spaniard -- played into the night and left little bread crumbs of drama everywhere they went.

This was Garcia's tournament to win when the day began. He had the lead Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and even had it as he walked up the 18th fairway on the final hole of regulation Sunday. One stroke separated him and Harrington.

But Carnoustie's 18th is harder than taking the LSAT with a hangover. The hole should come with a warning label.

Think about it:

• Harrington would have won the tournament outright in regulation, but he hit not one but two balls into Barry Burn on No. 18. Not even Van de Velde did that. The double-bogey dropped him from 9-under and the lead to 7-under and trailing Garcia by 1.

• Argentina's Andres Romero would have won the tournament outright, but he doubled the 17th, then blew his chance at being included in the playoff-to-be by bogeying -- ta-da! -- No. 18.

Romero's round of 67, which had more ups and downs than a ride at Six Flags, included 10 birdies and two double-bogeys. He didn't have a par in his last 11 holes.

• Then there is Garcia, who will need to launder his pants after this one. Once again, he was part of the final pairing in a British Open. Once again, he didn't win. If they ever do a police lineup of who robbed Garcia, Carnoustie's 18th will be there.

Garcia needed a par to win, so he used an iron off the tee and put the ball in the fairway. But then he had to wait, and wait, and wait some more as the group ahead of him finished the hole, followed by the raking of two bunkers.

"Having to wait 15 minutes in the fairway doesn't help when you're trying to win the British Open," he said afterward, clearly upset about the delay.

Garcia pulled a 3-iron, the same club he had flushed on the 12th, 14th and 16th holes. But he caught it a little Rosie O'Donnell (fat) and the ball flew into the left front bunker. His sand shot settled about 10 feet from the pin. Sink the putt and he wins his first major.

He missed. The ball took a brief peek inside the left edge of the hole, then spun out. Playoff.

"I thought it was in," he said.

Poor Garcia. (And if you don't believe how cursed he is, he'll tell you.) He bogeyed the first hole of the playoff, Harrington birdied, and that was that. Well, almost.

After trading pars over the next two holes, Garcia absolutely had to sink his 25-foot birdie putt on 18 to have a chance at forcing sudden death. Once again, he missed just to the left.

So Harrington, not Garcia, had his first major championship. When he was handed the Claret Jug during the presentation ceremony, Harrington looked as if he truly couldn't believe his name was engraved on the silver bands that bear-hug the base of the trophy.

And just to add to the strangeness of the day, a rainbow and a rare glimpse of sun arrived as Harrington began what would be a heartfelt and gracious victory speech.

"I know a major means so much to Sergio," he said, glancing toward Garcia. "His time will come."

Garcia's time would have come Sunday had he not shot a 2-over 73 in regulation. But that's what the pressure of a major, of Carnoustie's 18th hole can do to you.

One of these days, immensely talented Garcia will get it right, but until then, he needs to dial down the world-is-against-me rhetoric. He acknowledged Harrington's performance, but he also made sure everyone knew about the wait on No. 18 in regulation, about his tee shot hitting the pin on the par-3 16th and caroming 20 feet away in the playoff, and about how, "I rarely get many good breaks."

Please. Garcia got a huge break when he teed off Sunday. It's called a 3-stroke lead in a major. He got another break when Harrington dunked two balls into the burn on the 18th hole and handed Garcia back the lead.

Instead, Garcia failed to take advantage of both gifts.

"It's not news in my life," he said.

Meanwhile, Harrington's victory will be news in Ireland. Big news. An Irishman hasn't won a British Open in 60 years, so there's some celebrating to be done in a country that regards such things as a national pastime.

"I'm sure there's a hell of a party," said Harrington, who waved a Republic of Ireland flag on the 18th green. "I know I don't have anything to do for 2½ days, so I'm going to party on."

Anybody who saw this tournament unfold like a weeklong drama festival should do the same. This was the unthinkable at its best. Thanks, Carnoustie.


Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.