x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Putting is the key for Harrington

The Irish golfer's short game is strong and could fetch him a third successive title but Woods is still the man to beat.

The Irish are a superstitious lot and there will be a good number in the Emerald Isle who feel Padraig Harrington is destined to defy the odds and the formbook to make British Open Championship history at Turnberry. Not that they would find much support this week. Since winning the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills last August, a month after successfully defending his Open title at Royal Birkdale, their man has done little to suggest that more major success is imminent.

Harrington's form has been so poor in recent months that it would be difficult to justify his chances of becoming the first player since Australian Peter Thompson in 1956, and only the fifth since Open records began in 1860, to lift the Claret Jug three years in a row. Despite his slump, Harrington remains upbeat and his seven-shot victory in the Irish PGA Championship last week will be seen by fellow countrymen as a sign of bigger things to come.

They will point to the fact that, a week before his first Open triumph at Carnoustie, where he beat Sergio Garcia in a play-off, he captured the Irish PGA title, also in a play-off. Then last year, a week after retaining the Irish championship with four shots to spare, he secured his second consecutive Open crown by the same winning margin. While the Irish tournament is a minor non-Tour event and the odds are stacked against him extending the sequence at Turnberry, Harrington will certainly have benefited from playing a course set up in a similar way to the Ailsa links.

Teeing off with two former US Open Champions in American Jim Furyk and Australian Geoff Ogilvy, the Irishman knows how to play links courses. The key to his success in both previous years was some magical putting, especially inside 15ft. His long game is not where he would like it to be, but Harrington's ability to keep the ball in play with irons off the tee could put him in serious contention. After watching Tiger Woods in a practice round on Monday, however, I'm convinced that he is again the man to beat. For the first time since 2004 Woods does not hold a major title and he had never played at Turnberry before this week.

But, on his first encounter with the course, Tiger made it look easy. He used the driver on only four holes, the third, seventh, 17th and 18th. While the wind may change his tactics, I can't see him hitting many more drivers, and this could be crucial. Tiger is the best iron player in the world and has a greater variety of shots than anyone else with the exception of Garcia. Shot-making is crucial in links golf, where conditions change so quickly and dramatically that players who handle the wind best by changing the trajectory and shape of their shots are rewarded.

Tiger is an artist in windy conditions. His short game is unmatched and he will be tough to beat if he swings the driver as smoothly as he did in practice, keeping arms and body connected. I haven't seen him look this complete for a long time. He'll enjoy playing with Lee Westwood, who is again one of Europe's big hopes after showing good form in France and Scotland, and the exciting 17-year-old Japanese player, Ryo Ishikawa.

Masters champion and former US Open winner Angel Cabrera has the game to challenge for a third major title. In fact, of all the majors the British Open is probably best suited to his style of play. He is a shot maker with the power needed to shoot low scores in the wind and he arrived at Turnberry with his confidence high. The Ailsa fairways are much firmer than he sees on the PGA Tour and Cabrera has selected a different set of irons designed to minimise the amount of bounce when the sole of the club makes contact with the ground. This produces better ball contact and more consistent spin, reducing the chances of the ball jumping off the club face and flying over the green.

Turnberry holds some great memories for me as the course where I won the 1983 British Amateur Championship and learnt some valuable lessons, especially over the first four holes. They don't look difficult at first glance as there are none of the big dunes, but there is plenty of deep rough and some severe bunkers to catch you out. Among potential challengers to Woods, Ernie Els is playing much better of late, although he needs more putts to drop if he is to get close. Former world No 1 and 2001 British Open champion David Duval showed great form at last month's US Open.

The best players love the challenge, and I can't wait to see how Tiger works his way around Turnberry, and whether anyone can match him. Former Tour player Philip Parkin is a member of the BBC TV commentary team for the 138th Open Championship at Turnberry pparkin@thenational.ae