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Drama at Firestone was awesome while it lasted

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Wait. I don’t want to be rude here. Is Padraig Harrington finished playing the 16th hole at Firestone yet? Because it might be impolite to start writing before he’s finished.

He’s still taking his drop from the water hazard? OK. We’ll wait. He has to hit that putt from the back fringe, right? Wait. Not yet. Still outside of Tiger Woods. OK. I’m being patient. I think Tiger’s growing a beard waiting for Padraig to finish. Marking his ball? OK. Annnnnnnnd … in with an "8." OK. Thanks. Phew! I can start writing now.

Hey, how about that Tiger-Padraig Smackdown at Firestone, eh? That was awesome.

I mean … for 15 holes, it was awesome.

And then, again, Tiger played Dorothy and threw the bucket of Tiger Water on his opponent, the Wicked Witch of Whoever Tiger is Facing, and then there was the whole “I’m melting! I’m melting!” thing and the next thing we know, we’re talking about Tiger bagging his 70th PGA Tour win at age 33. Final-round 65s tend to do those kinds of things. So do 8-irons from 182 yards hit to 10 inches, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Seventy wins! That number used to mean something in baseball – for Mark McGwire, who held on to that home run record for about as long as Harrington held on to his 3-shot, 54-hole lead over Tiger.

It was a hell of a day for golf on so many levels, the most important being – we FINALLY had a Tiger Sunday Showdown with somebody we find worthy of our Sunday afternoon.

Let’s be honest. Tiger’s other wins this year, while dramatic, often featured some majorly small performances from his surrounding cast. Mostly, it’s been Tiger and the Incredible Shrinking Field, a point I made in my June 7 “The Tiger Rules” column – Rule No. 5 being “A True Tiger Sunday Involves the Field Coming Up Small.”

At Bay Hill, Sean O’Hair blew a 5-shot lead. At the Memorial, the two guys in the final twosome – Matt Bettencourt and Mark Wilson – each shot 73 and 75, and were so forgettable, even they’ve probably forgotten they played in the final twosome at Memorial. At Congressional, Anthony Kim sealed his place as the Next Great Failed Tiger Challenger, until further notice. And at the Buick, the field was so hilariously low-profile, Tiger was essentially playing a weekend Nassau.

But this one would be different, so much so that it almost calls for an exclamation point: This one would be different!

This one would be Tiger vs. Padraig, Tiger vs. the Guy Who’s Won More Majors Than Tiger In The Last Two Years, Tiger vs. A Real Heavyweight.

No joke. Harrington even chased down Tiger once in Japan, overcoming a three-stroke deficit and winning in a playoff in 2006. This wasn’t Tiger vs. the Witness Protection Program, like at the Buick last week. This was a Hazeltine preview, this was the last two PGA Tour Players of the Year, and a chance to settle into our couches with extra couch potato glee.

Fittingly, Tiger was spotting Padraig three strokes, which was about perfect, I reckon. If Vegas had to draw up a line on Saturday night, it would have been Tiger (-3 1/2) v. Padraig, and you would have to think long and hard on it.

And then two things happened:

1: A great day unfolded, with Tiger throwing haymakers and thunderbolts early, erasing a three-shot lead by going 4-under through 5, and Padraig retreating to his corner and taking a deep whiff of some smelling salts, then Padraig landing the jab and coming back strong, making birdie on 11, then Padraig knocking Tiger to the canvas for a brief second or two, Tiger making consecutive bogeys on 13 and 14 and then the crowd rising to its feet for the climactic final rounds and then …

2: Tiger put another competitor’s heart through the paper shredder.

There are many ways to interpret Tiger’s 8-iron from 182 yards to 10 inches on 16 for birdie, and many ways to interpret Padraig taking the dreaded triple-bogey snowman on 16 after a wayward drive, poor second, a third over the green, a fourth flopped into the water, a fifth dropped, a sixth on the back fringe and a two-putt for "8," but the most likely interpretations involve the following primary thoughts:

View photo

Padraig Harrington had these parting words for Tiger Woods after Sunday's tournament. "We’ll do battle many times again."
(Phil Long/AP Photo)

• Tiger is the best, Tiger likes to win, Tiger feels extra-Tigeresque at Firestone and Tiger has magic in his soul (See Rule No. 6 in "The Tiger Rules").

• Padraig suddenly became acutely aware of everything listed in No. 1.

• Tiger wanted to make sure Padraig remembers that when he goes home to look at the ’08 British Open claret jug, and the ’08 Wanamaker Trophy, Padraig takes out a Sharpie and draws a giant asterisk – just like this "*" – on 'em.

See, Harrington’s brilliance in winning three majors comes with the caveat that the last two were won when Tiger was on his couch, rehabbing his knee. Tiger is far too sportsmanlike to suggest that Harrington’s wins were anything other than fine and historic triumphs.

Instead, Tiger suggests it in his own inimitable way: by shooting 65 to Padraig’s 72 in the final round at Firestone, by waiting patiently while Harrington makes 8 on 16, and by making birdie-4 with one of the top 20 shots of his career, the aforementioned 8-iron from 182.

To 10 inches, in case you forgot.

So, enjoy those majors, was Tiger’s message. And I’ll see you at Hazeltine next week.

Sure, there were things from which Harrington could take strength. After withstanding Tiger’s shock and awe in the first five holes, he turned a two-shot deficit into a one-shot lead. He fought Tiger harder than any player this year. He let Tiger know he can fix that crazed Harrington Stare, and hit great shots under pressure.

He also made 8 when Tiger made 4.

When it was over, and they shook hands, Harrington said to Tiger: “We’ll do battle many more times.”

Tiger could only smile and wonder: Is that a threat, or a promise?

Scorecard of the week

Jennifer Song def. Jennifer Johnson, 3 and 1, U.S. Women’s Amateur championship match.

It would be appropriate if the two ladies received congratulatory phone calls from Jennifer Aniston to complete the Jennifer-palooza, but Aniston was probably like the rest of us – too consumed by Tiger v. Padraig to watch the U.S. Women’s Am.

Regardless of her bad luck in going head-to-head for TV ratings with the Sunday Red Shirt, we salute Song, who becomes only the second woman to win two USGA titles in one summer, adding to her U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links title from June. Pearl Sinn was the other, in 1988.

If something sounds familiar about the phrase "U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links," it’s probably because you might remember the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links as the tournament Michelle Wie was seen in the victory circle – way back in 2003. Interestingly, Song’s media guide biography at USC, where she will be a sophomore, lists among her goals "Be the first woman to play in the Masters."

Hmmm. Where have I heard that before?

And here’s the thing – Jennifer Song, with her accomplishments, is closer to getting there than the original Masters dreamer, the Big Wiesy.

Broadcast moment of the week

“Stevie Williams said to me, coming up the 9th fairway just now, out of the side of his mouth: ‘I think my man is feeling it today.’ ” – David Feherty, CBS.

Great tidbit from Feherty, an exchange that performed a couple of functions: One, it gave us a peek into the mindset of sports' greatest working team, the Tiger-Stevie Team, allowing us to see that even his longtime caddie is sometimes in awe of the man for whom he loops.

And two, it allowed us to know that exchanges between Feherty and Team Tiger don’t have to be restricted to belly laughs over the expulsion of gas. Like any fan of the movie ‘Blazing Saddles,’ however, sometimes you have no choice but to laugh.

If you don’t know whereof I speak, consider yourself above the fray and move along.

Mulligan of the week

Mully of the Week honors were nearly signed, sealed and delivered to PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, who did his in-booth interview with CBS sporting a sheen of sweat not seen since the Robert Hays character tried to land at O’Hare in the 1980 comedy classic “Airplane.” Midwestern heat can be ruthless, and the commish worked up a fine coating climbing his way to the interview with Nantz. I was prepared to award Finchem the Interview Mully and shout out "Somebody give that man a towel!"

However, Finchem was eclipsed, in the end, by Harrington’s implosion at 16, a hole so bad you can take your pick of mulligans.

Should we give him a mully on the drive, which he blocked right, when he had a one-shot lead over Tiger with three to play? Should we give him the mully on the flop shot into the water, the stroke that prompted the normally reserved Nantz to pipe up with “golf tournament right there"?

Let’s go "inside golf" and award him the re-do on his second shot on 16. It wasn’t as sexy a screw-up as the flop into the drink, but if Harrington had hit a more productive second – a shot he admitted later was rushed, after the duo was put on the clock – he wouldn’t have been in position to have an awkward third that would land over the green.

Let’s go back to that treeline, give Harrington a nice line for that punch-out, tell him to take a couple of deep breaths and … give that man a mulligan!

Where do we go from here?

To Hazeltine, friends! It’s the PGA Championship, known by its lesser nickname, “The Major That Tiger Better Win, Lest He Take His Five ’09 Trophies From the Arnold Palmer, Memorial, AT&T, Buick and Firestone And Melt Them In a Funeral Pyre.”

So many storylines: Does Tiger get No. 15? Does Tiger win three straight weeks? Does Tiger grind his molars while a Cabrera-Glover-Cink-type winner kisses the Wanamaker?

Stay tuned, friends. You never know when somebody’s going to make an 8 when you least expect it.

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