Padraig Harrington is right where he wanted to be. Today he will challenge for the Open, playing in the final pairing alongside Greg Norman, whom he trails by two strokes. All he was looking for was a chance. The fact that he is going for a second successive Claret Jug has little bearing on it, although winning the first one proved to the 36-year-old Irishman that he has the formula for success.
It is an elusive coda. Just ask David Duval. Duval also entered the weekend with the prospect of a second Claret Jug, one that would be filled with the warmth of human kindness that was missing last time. But it was not to be for the American, who has been so short of form for so long. He succumbed to an 83, his chances blown away on the wind. Not so Harrington, whose 72 left him right in the thick of it once again.
"I had a great time out there," Harrington said. "It was a day to keep yourself focused. I probably hit more greens in regulation than I would on a calm day. But I'm happy with the return. It was probably the toughest putting day I've ever experienced."
Harrington and Duval have much in common, these sons of 1971. Both are intelligent, blessed with curiosity, are companionable, are passionate family men, each with two children, with Duval's also having three stepchildren. Both have given better-than-average speeches holding the Claret Jug on the 18th green.
Yet as Open champions they could not be more different. Almost from the moment Duval triumphed up the coast at Lytham in 2001 his life, let alone his golf, seemed to fall apart. Despite his words to an appreciative gallery, the celebrations that night were muted, joyless even. "They packed up the house as if he had finished tied for 19th," said an American reporter who spent the evening with Duval's entourage. The relationship with his then fiancée had already gone cold and was to end shortly afterwards. A few weeks later he woke up and realised winning a major was not his life's ambition. "There must be more to life than this," he thought.
Contrast with Harrington's joyous victory at Carnoustie, his wife beside the green and his son running on to it to greet the new champion. Duval admitted he did not have anyone with whom to share his supreme moment.
"I was alone," he said. "It's not the same without your own family." Harrington not only had a family with which to share his success but the entire golf-mad nation of Ireland, and we were all allowed to share too.
Duval, like Greg Norman, could not now be happier in his personal life. Getting his golf back has been more problem-atic. He had made only one cut all year before Friday night, when after a 69 he was accorded a fine ovation. "I'm a big fan of this championship. Open champions are embraced forever," he said. "The fact that I've struggled since, they appreciate the hard work it takes to get back."
No European has successfullydefended at the Open for more than a century, but Harrington has worked towards this weekend determined to conduct himself as a fine champion. As an ambassador for the game he has drawn praise from the R & A chief executive, Peter Dawson. He admits there are downsides to all the attention but realises you cannot pick and choose the benefits such a career-enriching achievement brings.
"There's nothing I would change about being the Open champion," he said. "It's fantastic. There's no question it brings extra pressure, it brings expectation and distraction, you try a bit harder. There's a little bit of a burden, but it's a burden you would like to have."
If there is such a thing as a good distraction it was probably the Irishman's wrist injury, sustained while practising last weekend. At least it allowed him to rest up without overdoing the practice rounds. He was in good enough form anyway, having defended his Irish PGA title last week.
But a "successful defence" of his title was not on the agenda. "However I perform this week it has no bearing on the fact that I won in 2007," he said. "There is nothing to prove from last year."
Once he was able to tee off on Thursday, in the worst of the rain, all he cared about was this year. His burst of four under for the last four on Friday kept him in touch with the leaders, and by the start of the back nine yesterday he was sharing the top spot on the leaderboard.
He found a bunker at the second and dropped a shot but then chipped in at the fifth for a birdie. There was no doubting the crowd's favourite as the roar rang out. And again when he holed for a two at the short seventh.
He was still two behind at the time and he dropped a shot at the next, but the mayhem was to soon to affect the leaders. Harrington, like all the later groups, suffered a 20-minute delay on the 10th tee and the momentum of his round seemed to fizzle. No sooner had he hit the top of the leaderboard than he three-putted both the 11th, for a bogey, and the 12th, for a double bogey having missed the green in a horrid lie up the bank.
But by now the gusting winds were causing problems for everyone, and birdies at the two par-fives at the end of the round left Harrington better placed than a year ago, when he came from six behind Sergio Garcia. This was a day when golf was in the mind as on the ground, and this is where Harrington is so strong. Graeme McDowell knows all about such things, having learnt his golf at Portrush. "A nice, breezy, sunny day at the Open," he said in a manner that sug-gested he could not imagine anything more enjoyable. Not even after a double bogey at the first. But apart from a birdie at the fifth there was not much to cheer for the Scottish Open champion in his 80. Perhaps his glory came a week too early. Today Ireland will again turn to Harrington.