Hosting its ninth Open Championship, Birkdale provided plenty of drama – and a Champion who almost did not compete. Padraig Harrington, the defending Champion, admitted on the eve of the first round that had it not been The Open, he would not have played. When he pulled out of practice on Wednesday to receive intensive treatment to his right wrist, his Open prospects looked grim.
With winds never much less than 20mph, and gusting up to 50mph, the players could do nothing but battle it out. Day one began with wind and heavy rain. Although conditions improved slightly in the afternoon, by the end of the day only three players had broken par. American Rocco Mediate, Graeme McDowell from Northern Ireland and Australia’s Robert Allenby shared the lead on 69, one under par.
A stroke behind them were Bart Bryant, Adam Scott and, to the surprise of everyone, the 1986 and 1993 Open Champion, Greg Norman, who had last competed in 2005.
Excitement and surprise mounted on day two as Norman took the lead at the half way stage, only to lose it late in the afternoon to KJ Choi, whose 67 came after birdies at the 13th, 17th and 18th holes. His second day aggregate of 139 was one lower than Norman’s. Chasing was Columbia’s Camilo Villegas, who had a magical round of 65, which included eight birdies, five of which were over the last five holes. He finished the day on 141.
The cut, which was drawn at nine over, saw the hopes of many disappear, including former Open Champions Paul Lawrie, Mark O’ Meara, Tom Watson and Mark Calcavecchia. The main story, however, was Greg Norman and his prospects for the weekend as he bid to become the oldest winner of The Open Championship.
Conditions continued to prove challenging on the Saturday with gale force winds. Of the 83 players remaining, only four made par, Davis Love, Henrik Stenson, Ben Curtis and Simon Wakefield. It propelled Stenson of Sweden from tied 52nd to joint 9th position, while Curtis finished his round in joint 5th. Wakefield ignited England’s hopes, as he climbed to 4th.
The promise of a thrilling final was guaranteed by the three players topping the leaderboard. Norman’s round of 72 left him two shots clear of Harrington, who was tied for second place with KJ Choi.
Sunday morning brought a north-westerly wind and squally showers. David Howell set an early clubhouse lead of 292 after a stunning eagle on the 17th and a round score of 67, the lowest of the day. The hopes of twenty year old amateur Chris Wood were boosted with an outward half of 33, but bogeys at the 11th, 12th and 13th set him back. He re-claimed some ground with a birdie at the 17th. His total of 290 saw him tied for 5th place with Jim Furyk of the United States and he received the Silver Medal as leading amateur.
Choi’s final challenge got underway with a bogey at the first and a further five on the outward half ended his chances of success. Meanwhile Harrington gained ground on Norman to close the gap by one shot. A par for Harrington on the 2nd and a bogey for Norman left them sharing the lead on four over. After Norman bogeyed the 3rd and 6th, Harrington was two strokes clear of his rival, but there were tense moments to follow. Norman was back in lead position after Harrington bogeyed the 7th, 8th and 9th holes, but Harrington regained the lead after Norman bogeyed the 12th and further extended it to three shots after a birdie at the 13th, which Norman bogeyed. This effectively ended the Australian’s challenge.
Joining the fray was Ian Poulter, who was partnering Chris Wood. While Harrington and Norman were battling it out mid-round, Poulter was trying to shrug off the six shot deficit he started the day with. He secured a birdie on the 11th and another at the 16th, into a tough wind, holing the ball from 18 feet. He finished his round in 69 for a total of 287 and then had to wait while the action continued out on the course.
Harrington made another birdie at the 15th followed by a spectacular eagle at the 17th when a five-wood shot from 249 yards landed within three feet of the hole. A par at the 18th gave the Irishman a winning total of 283, four strokes ahead of Poulter. Norman finished third on 289, tied with Henrik Stenson.
Harrington could celebrate the honour of becoming the Champion Golfer of the Year once more, and the first European to win The Open back to back since James Braid in 1906.
Despite appalling weather, the 2008 Open Championship was a resounding success; over 200,000 spectators made their way to Birkdale, the second highest number for an Open held outside of St Andrews.