Padraig Harrington, winner of the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, has warmly welcomed Tiger Woods’ return to the event at the Angus venue this summer, predicting his presence is likely to produce a repeat of a “buzz” of excitement the Irishman had never previously witnessed in golf.
Woods, who has claimed the Claret Jug three times, including a brace of victories at St Andrews in 2000 and 2005, is set to make his first appearance in the event since missing the cut at the home of golf three years ago after confirming his entry for the season’s third major on 19-22 July.
Speaking at Carnoustie, where he beat Sergio Garcia in a play-off 11 years ago to claim the first of three major wins in the space of just 13 months, Harrington said it will be great to have the former world No 1 back on British soil after missing the events at Royal Troon and Royal Birkdale due to injury.
The Dubliner also used the Valspar Championship, a PGA Tour event in Tampa, earlier in the year to illustrate the impact Woods will have in terms of boosting interest in the game’s oldest major after fearing his career could have been over before returning to action late last year following four back operations.
“I’m delighted he’s back for the good of golf,” said Harrington. “The buzz at Tampa, I’ve never seen anything like that before ever in the game of golf. When Tiger was at his best there was an incredible buzz. We just assumed that’s what it was. Over the last ten years we’ve had players come and go and there’s a buzz but at Tampa it was all different.
“It was amazingly different. You had people who had seen Tiger at his best who wanted to see him again. You had young people who had never seen him play. But then you had an element of people who hadn’t seen him play but were anxious to see him play in case they never got the chance to see him play. You had three sets of people out there, a good bunch of them non-golfers, who wanted to see a great sportsman play with the fear that he could play one event and then say ‘that’s it I’m gone’.”
Woods was just 19 and still an amateur when he first played at Carnoustie in the Scottish Open in 1995, the same year he made his Open Championship debut at St Andrews. He finished joint-seventh behind Paul Lawrie in the 1999 Claret Jug event before tying for 12th as Harrington triumphed eight years later. According to the Irishman, fans attending this year’s tournament can expect to see a different Woods to the serious and stern-faced one from past appearances.
“I’m thrilled to see him back,” admitted Harrington. “In our heydays, he wasn’t a very social person and nor was I. Now we are both at the stage where we crave a bit more of the social side of things. As was the case with me, Tiger used to be all about him. But, earlier this year at the Farmers [Insurance Open in San Diego], he came on to the range and he talked to three or four people then came to me and had a chat. He stood there with his caddie and some media. And no manager. Prior to 2008, I don’t think he ever stood there without his manager beside him. He does say ‘hello’. He was always polite. He was the easiest player to play golf with. He’d say ‘good shot’ when you hit a good shot and would have a few small chats but basically you were there to play golf. Now he’s more relaxed and he’s wanting to enjoy it. He’s got to that stage. He is a little different, it’s not all business.”
Business for Harrington during his return to Carnoustie for an event organised by Wilson Staff, the clubs he has now used for 20 years, included replaying those four play-off holes from 2007. That shoot-out was only required after he took a six at the 72nd hole after twice visiting the Barry Burn but, on this occasion, he made the 18th look more straightforward. “My life would have been so much easier,” he declared after splitting the fairway with his drive. “But it would have been boring to do that,” he added, laughing.
Left with a 4-iron for his second and safely finding the green, Harrington shouted “just like Paul Lawrie” in paying tribute to the Aberdonian’s shot from a similar spot with the same club when he claimed the Claret Jug on the Angus course in 1999. Harrington duly matched Lawrie’s birdie and, with a massive smile on his face, declared: “I must be a better player than in 2007.”
Eight years earlier, of course, Frenchman Jean Van de Velde came to grief at the 18th when he had one hand on the Claret Jug and Harrington expects it to be pivotal again this summer. “Even flying over here last night I was thinking about the 18th and how I would play it,” he said. “There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. It brings a lot of pressure and it carries a lot of baggage.
“Everybody remembers how badly Jean played it and some will remember how I played it. It carries that baggage. Even if you’ve played it well all your life you’ll still remember there is danger there. It’s a very difficult finishing hole, but the storylines and history makes it even tougher.”