CARNOUSTIE, Scotland &

As Padraig Harrington scampered around the 18th green, posing for pictures with the claret jug and wearing a bewildered smile, a tiny sliver of rainbow poked out from the clouds above the Scottish coast.




It was a magical bit of timing, considering the week of relentless gloom, and all the more appropriate under the circumstances. Somehow, a guy who plopped not one, but two balls into a creek at the 72nd hole of the British Open was now reaping the glory.




all rights, Harrington should have been another Jean Van de Velde.




Instead, he'll go down as the Open champion.




"There were so many things going through my head," Harrington said after Sunday's gut-wrenching playoff victory, having endured enough ups and downs to fill a career. "A huge amount of it was genuine shock."




Harrington wasn't the only one trying to figure out what happened.




How about Sergio Garcia, denied of his first major title yet again after starting the day with a three-shot lead and going to the 18th hole merely needing a par to clinch it? How about Andres Romero, a little-known Argentine who sank an astonishing 10 birdies and had the lead with two holes to go, only to buckle under the intense pressure?




Seventy-two holes weren't enough. Not at Crazy Carnoustie. Four more were required before it was all sorted out, the prize going to a golfer who simply refused to believe he could lose, even after he knocked one shot into the Barry Burn, then another.




Harrington's not sure he could have handled the alternative.




"The one thing I never, ever let in my head was that I'd lost," the Irishman said. "It would have been incredibly hard to take. To come so close and not to win ... I think I would have struggled in the future."




He surely recalls what happened to Van de Velde, who hasn't come close to contending in another major since he went to the last hole of the '99 Open with a three-stroke lead, facing this same diabolic course. He threw it all away with a triple bogey, which included a shot into the very stream that would gobble up Harrington twice.




The Frenchman also got a second-chance playoff, but he was merely a spectator his next time through the 18th hole, clapping forlornly as Paul Lawrie claimed a win that should have been Van de Velde's.




Eight years later, Harrington wrote a different script. He birdied the first playoff hole to take a two-stroke lead over Garcia that endured the rest of the way.




Neither of them had to worry about Tiger Woods, who came to Carnoustie seeking his third straight Open title but never seriously challenged on the final day. He finished five strokes back, in a tie for 12th.




When Harrington came to No. 18 in the playoff, still up by two strokes, he didn't attack with a driver as Van de Velde foolishly did. He played it safe off the tee, laid up in front of the burn, got it onto the green, sent a long putt — feet past the cup, and rolled that one in for a bogey.




Good enough.




"I know it was only a short putt, but the emotions of it &

I couldn't believe it as it was rolling in," Harrington said. "I'm thinking, 'The Open champion. Am I the Open champion? What does this mean?'"




Garcia, perhaps the best player in the world without a major title, was at the opposite end of the emotional scale.




He sounded wounded, bitter, even a bit petulant, like a child who found that toy he always wanted under the tree Christmas morning, only to be told it belonged to someone else. He struggled to a 1-over 73, which was caught by Harrington's 67. They went to the playoff at 7-under 277.




"It is tough, mainly because I don't feel like I did anything wrong," Garcia said. "I didn't miss a shot in the playoff and I hit unbelievable putts, but they just didn't go in."




The most excruciating putt for Garcia came at the last hole of regulation.




He knew up ahead that Harrington had made double bogey on 18, giving Garcia a one-stroke advantage. Needing par for the championship, he blasted out of a greenside bunker to 10 feet.




Garcia hovered over his new belly putter, a change he made to steady his jittery stroke. He collapsed over the club when the ball caught the left side of the cup and spun out, a major championship denied by a fraction of an inch.




"I'm not sure how I missed it," Garcia moaned.




In a way, the playoff was anticlimactic. Garcia caught a bunker at the first hole and two-putted for bogey. Harrington hit a marvelous approach and sank his putt for birdie. They matched pars over the next two holes, then Harrington clinched it with his cautious bogey at the end.




The real drama was in the last hour or so of regulation.




Romero, a 26-year-old player on the European Tour who has yet to win a significant pro event, stormed to the lead with a string of birdies.




It looked as though Argentina would claim its second major in a row &

Angel Cabrera won the U.S. Open last month &

until Romero hooked a wounded duck of a shot off the burn's wall at No. 17. The ball bounced crazily back toward the 18th fairway, past the out-of-bounds marker that divides the last two holes.




Romero wound up with a double bogey. Still shaken, he bogeyed the last hole despite a marvelous drive &

missing the green with a short iron, flubbing a chip and lipping out a putt to save par, a la Garcia.




If the putt had gone in, Romero would have made it to the playoff. As it was, he settled for third place, one stroke behind Harrington and Garcia.




"The pressure certainly caught up with me," Romero conceded.




Maybe it got to Harrington, too.




He went to the 72nd hole with a one-stroke lead on Garcia, but the drive faded right, hopped once at the edge of the fairway and twice more on a tiny bridge over the burn. It looked as if it might make it to the other side, but the angle of the shot sent it plunging over the railing.




After shaking off his dazed look, Harrington headed off to take a drop. In a fitting bit of timing, he and Garcia crossed the bridge at nearly the same time, heading in opposite directions.




Garcia appeared to be strolling toward a championship. Harrington seemed to be staggering toward the misery of what might have been &

especially when he knocked his next shot into the same burn farther down the fairway.




Before they were done, the roles changed again.




Apparently, there's room for only one Van de Velde at Carnoustie.