The play-off brought to an end a truly sensational final day’s play, one of the most exciting and thrilling Sundays an Open Championship has witnessed in many years.
It was also one of the best in terms of overall result for The European Tour. For apart from the two main protagonists, the other three places in the top five were also filled by European Tour Members.
Argentina’s Andres Romero produced some of the most remarkable golf witnessed on the Angus links to card a final round 67 and finish in third place on six under par 278, while Australia’s Richard Green and Ernie Els of South Africa shared fourth on five under par 279 after respective final rounds of 64 and 69.
Indeed, in the early stages of the final round it looked like Els might be the man to come through and win his fourth Major Championship as Garcia, with a three shot lead at the start of the day, showed signs of pressure.
Despite birdieing the third hole, uncertainty with his belly putter led to the Spaniard bogeying the fifth, seventh and eighth while Els picked up birdies at the second, third and sixth holes to propel himself up the leader board.
But the South African could not capitalise further and in the end had to settle for a share of fourth place with Richard Green who stormed through the field with a final day 64 – and who indeed found himself a mere inch away from history.
Only seven players – Mark Hayes, Isao Aoki, Greg Norman, Paul Broadhurst, Jodie Mudd, Nick Faldo and the late Payne Stewart – have carded rounds of 63 in Open Championship history and the left handed Australian ever so nearly made it eight.
A wonderful first 17 holes saw the 36 year old notch birdies at the second, third, sixth, ninth, 13th and 17th and an eagle three at the 14th to stand at eight under par for his round.
He needed a par four at the treacherously difficult 499 yard par four 18th for a 63 but after a pushed drive, he could only play up short of the Barry Burn with his second shot. A delicate pitch left the winner of last month’s BA-CA Golf Open, presented by Telekom Austria with a ten footer for par but the ball slipped an inch past the cup.
Nevertheless, Green had the considerable consolation of equalling the lowest round ever carded in an Open Championship at Carnoustie – the 64 of American Steve Stricker in the third round on Saturday – and the course record for the Championship Course itself, jointly held by Scottish professionals Colin Montgomerie and Alan Tait.
“I was very happy with my round as it leaves me in good shape for the rest of the year,” he said. “It is my best result in a Major and has been a great experience, hopefully I’ll contend some more in the future.”
With Els and Green out of contention for the main prize, the spotlight fell on the unexpected personage of Romero who, for a spell on the back nine, looked like he might produce the second Argentine winner of a Major Championship in a row following Angel Cabrera’s victory in the US Open at Oakmont last month.
Having blazed to the turn in three under par 33, Romero produced a rollercoaster back nine which had to be seen to be believed.
The 26 year old’s putter was red-hot with six birdies putts in total dropping into the hole from a myriad of distances and, indeed, when he notched back to back birdies at the 15th and 16th, he found himself two shots clear in the Championship itself and with the Claret Jug in sight.
But unfortunately for Romero, some of his approach play was not so accurate as his work with the flat stick and a trip into the gorse cost him a double bogey six at the 12th while an unlucky ricochet off the burn wall and out of bounds at the 17th cost him another.
Although he was not to know it at the time, had he parred the 18th he would have featured in the play-off alongside Harrington and Garcia but when he failed to get over the Barry Burn in two shots, a pitch to ten feet and two putts brought him a bogey five.
“I feel very pleased with my overall performance but the pressure certainly caught up with me, the pressure of the last two holes on such a big occasion,” he said.
“I hit a bad shot on the 17th but I also had a bit of bad luck there to fly out of bounds and I hit a poor second shot on the 18th. But in spite of it all, I’m delighted. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience playing this year and I look forward to playing next year.”
All of which left the stage clear for Harrington and Garcia to battle out who would become the first European born player to win a Major Championship since Paul Lawrie on these very same Carnoustie links eight years ago in 1999.
With Garcia wobbling, it looked like it would be Harrington, especially after he rolled in a telling eagle putt at the 14th which took him top of the leader board at nine under par as Romero was having his travails at the 17th.
But Garcia dug in and back to back birdies at the 13th and 14th showed the Spaniard’s grit and determination and he tied Harrington at nine under par. With Romero having bogeyed the last to drop back to six under par, suddenly, it was clear it would be one of Europe’s Ryder Cup heroes who would become the Open Champion.
When Garcia bunkered his approach to the 15th to make bogey he dropped back to eight under par but nothing could prepare him for the drama which was about to unfold up ahead to Harrington on the 18th tee.
With visions of Jean Van de Velde’s collapse on the final hole eight years ago flooding back, the Irishman firstly pushed his drive right into the Barry Burn before dropping out and firing his second shot into the Burn in front of the green on his way to a double bogey six.
It moved Harrington back to seven under par leaving Garcia, back on the tee at eight under par, knowing a par four would bring him his first Major Championship.
But, still the drama was not over.
Despite finding the centre of the fairway from the tee, the Spaniard’s approach found the bunker to the left of the green and although he played a fine escape to eight feet, he could not find the bottom of the cup with the putt that would have brought him his first Major Championship.
Harrington had closed with a 67 for a seven under par total of 277 while Garcia ended with a 73 for the same total. It meant only one thing, a four-hole play-off, similar to Paul Lawrie’s triumph at Carnoustie in 1999 and the first since American Todd Hamilton beat Ernie Els at Royal Troon in 2004.