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Padraig Harrington, Steven Alker primed for final-round showdown at Charles Schwab Cup Championship

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Padraig Harrington, Steven Alker primed for final-round showdown at Charles Schwab Cup Championship

    Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR

    Padraig Harrington’s Round 3 highlights at Charles Schwab Cup Championship

    PHOENIX – Reference, if you will, the famed “Duel in the Sun,” the Open Championship of 1977. Or should the ponies tickle your fancy, Affirmed-Alydar from 1978 still captivates a sports fan’s imagination.

    There simply is a splendor to the purity of a head-to-head competition that removes the noise and snaps the focus into place. Steven Alker vs. Padraig Harrington to close out the 2022 PGA TOUR Champions season fits into that mold. No. 1 in the Charles Schwab Cup standings vs. No. 2. Virtually glued at the hip in the three-week playoff run. Mano a mano.

    Others have had major highlights this season but Alker and Harrington (seven wins, eight seconds, six thirds

    combined) have been start-to-finish storylines and that is likely to draw out for one more day – only with a twist.

    That’s because whereas Nicklaus in ’77 and Alydar in ’78 didn’t have the luxury of a season-long competition, Alker and Harrington do and the participants are well aware of that.

    “I’ve already clarified that in my mind,” said Harrington, after scorching Phoenix CC in 9-under 62 to push to 21-under to get five in front of Alker (68). “I am focused on winning the Charles Schwab Cup Championship. That’s what I am trying to win.”

    Which is because, in Harrington’s mind, Alker is in prime position to win the season-long Charles Schwab Cup’s $1m prize. “Which is only right,” said Harrington. “He’s had an unbelievable year and, look, he hasn’t made a bogey this week. He deserves to win.”

    Alker would likely appreciate Harrington’s sentiments – and he’d have an opportunity to thank him Sunday, given

    that they’re going to be paired together yet again, now six times in 10 playoff rounds. But after conceding that “I have a lot of chasing to do to win the tournament,” Alker conceded that his competitive fires are warmed for the $1m reward.

    “Bring it on,” said Alker, with a smile. “So, yeah, it is still in my control, so that is good. I cannot be disappointed.”

    Indeed, Alker shouldn’t be. Again, he has played 54 bogey-free holes as the front-runner in the standings here at Phoenix CC. Plus, it’s against the Rules of Golf to tackle or otherwise try to play defense against a playing competitor who opens his round with an eagle, shoots 30 on his second nine, and continues to overpower golf courses.

    Alker over the first two rounds hadn’t played more than four holes in a row without a birdie, but in possession of a one-stroke lead over Harrington to start the day, the offense never arrived. There was a birdie at the third, but another one didn’t arrive until the 12th. Then, five more

    holes without a birdie before the New Zealander got it up-and-down at the par-5 18th for his third of a quiet day.

    At 65-64-68, Alker has not quite done enough to lead the championship, which would nail down the overall title. But he’s done plenty to put himself in position to seal the season-long prize opposite a Harrington win. What the details are (likely, a top five finish), “I’ll let Sam (Workman, his caddie) to figure out,” Alker laughed.

    “I’m not really a leaderboard watcher. I was just going to let him do that and if I ask, he’ll let me know.”

    With Harrington alongside in the final pairing, Alker, who will start at 16-under, will not have to watch a scoreboard to see what the Irishman is doing. It’s those who’ll be in front of him (Brian Gay, 15-under; Alex Cejka, 14-under, Retief Goosen, 13-under; and assorted others who are double-digits under par) who might disrupt the picture.

    Currently in second place, Alker knows he can’t dip too low. Thus, the philosophy will be what it’s been this

    entire remarkable season. “Why change what I’ve been doing?” said Alker. “We’ll just try and make as many birdies as we can to (try and) give Padraig a run for his money.”

    The comfort zone, said Harrington, will be being paired with Alker. By now, it’s a familiar pairing for the Irishman, who has immense respect for the depths from where Alker has come in his career.

    Should Alker’s story resonate more than it has?

    “Yes,” said Harrington, emphatically. “And because it’s happened we’re going to put reasons on why it’s happened. The fact is, he was always a nice player . . . always a very solid player.”

    If there is any discomfort, Harrington said it comes from being in the lead. “I’ve always been a better chaser than leader,” he said.

    Not that he’s going to give back the five-stroke lead, mind you, but exactly why does he prefer to chase than lead?

    Harrington smiled, laughed, and shrugged. “Chasing has no downside. Who cares if you finish second or third? When you chase, you’re playing with fear and I’ve always been good playing with fear. Under pressure, I’m good.”

    Perhaps, then, Harrington should remind himself that while he is in the lead in one competition, he’s still chasing in the other.

    Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.

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