Harrington set for tour title battle

ROBERT KARLSSON is perfectly poised to win it for the first time and Lee Westwood could also prove a spoilsport but even the two closest challengers for the European Tour order of merit title agree that Pádraig Harrington remains the outstanding golfer of 2008.

“If you asked me if Pádraig was the player of the year, then I would have to say yes,” admitted Westwood. “Anyone who wins two majors in a year has to be classed as the best of that year.”

Karlsson, understandably enough, wasn’t quite as forthcoming given that he currently holds a 290,425 points lead over the Irishman. But he did acknowledge: “The order of merit is a funny thing because so much depends on the number of tournaments you play. Pádraig has played 13 but I’ve played 22. So it’s a bit unfair. It’s like Manchester United playing Arsenal and one has to play 13 and the other 22. It’s not really a fair judgement of the season – but if I win it, I’m not going to complain, put it that way.”

In fairness to Harrington, he sees no reason whatever to quibble with those comments. “I haven’t played enough events to put me out there and my best tournaments definitely weren’t in Europe. Robert has performed more consistently in Europe and consistency is what the order of merit is about. He probably deserves it but that doesn’t mean he gets it.”

Harrington, it seems, is ready for battle and really looking forward to it. It will be fascinating to see how he and Karlsson fare when they go out in the last match of the first round just before noon Irish time today.

Obviously, Karlsson wins the order of merit if he wins the tournament. Harrington will prevail if he wins and the Swede isn’t second. Even if Westwood wins, the Harry Vardon Trophy still won’t be his should Karlsson come runner-up or Harrington is fifth .

Harrington and Karlsson are good friends and indeed Ryder Cup partners but the Irishman has far greater experience of these situations.

Back in 2002, he and Retief Goosen were neck and neck coming to the Volvo and, as usual, went out in the last match on the first day. Harrington’s approach to the first pulled up inches short of the putting surface and in the belief that he was on the green, picked up the ball and marked it. After realising his mistake, he was penalised two shots and immediately his challenge for tournament and order of merit was essentially over. He also finished second in ‘01 and third in ‘03, ‘04 and ‘07

In 2006, though, it was a different matter and with the help of a faltering finish by Sergio Garcia and an illness that befell his closest rival, Paul Casey, he finished off the job to become only the third Irishman after Christy O’Connor Senior, twice, and Ronan Rafferty to head the money list.

If the issue is to be decided by having been there before, the Harrington-Karlsson showdown should be a foregone conclusion in the former’s favour given that the best finish the Swede has managed was fourth in ‘06.

As against that, Westwood knows perfectly well what it takes to show them all the way home. He pipped Darren Clarke in 2000, was second in 1999 and third twice before that. His form dipped throughout the early and mid years of the new millennium before he rededicated himself to practice and fitness. He was tenth a year ago and now owes his place in the top three to his runner-up spot in the US Open at Torrey Pines in June together with finishing second on six occasions.

Still, the fact that he has yet to actually win in 2008 could prey on Westwood’s mind should he come down the stretch on Sunday afternoon with the two big prizes still there for the taking. Miguel-Angel Jimenez and Henrik Stenson could still figure in the shake-up if they enjoy big weeks and the three leaders fail to show.

Just about every player accepts that this is a decidedly dangerous golf course on which just about anything could happen. Certainly, nothing will have been decided one way or the other until the par five 17th with the lake fronting a treacherously back to front sloping green is out of the way.

A number of subtle changes have also been made to the Valderrama course, some of which are likely to see it play more difficult than ever in this its last hosting of the Volvo Masters. Even though the Robert Trent Jones design is 12 yards short of 7,000 yards and accordingly is far from the longest these players tackle on the big occasions, it is very much on the soft side with hardly any run on the ball.

A strong, chilly wind swept the course yesterday and if the conditions remain pretty much the same through the week-end, those finishing on level par 284 will be very close the first prize of €708,000.


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