Harrington awakes to new world order
Dubliner targets fresh crop at top of rankings after ending drought
AS a trained accountant, Padraig Harrington should be good at juggling numbers. On Sunday evening, for example, it was amusing to hear the Dubliner's take on his 26 months without a victory in world-ranking events.
One suspects there was a mischievous twinkle in Harrington's eye as he fielded a question about the pressure he'd endured before his long drought ended that afternoon at the Iskandar Johor Open in Malaysia.
"I've certainly been reminded of it for the past three or four months," he agreed. "As I like to point out, however, I won in 2008 and I've won in 2010, so I've only missed one year as it turns out."
Full marks to the 39-year-old for that gem. Yet creative accounting cannot conceal the sweeping changes which have taken place at the top in professional golf in the two-plus years since 'The Big Sleep' began for Harrington.
For sure, Tiger Woods is still on top of the world, as he was on August 10 in 2008 as Harrington celebrated victory at the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, the Irishman's third victory in six Majors.
However, Woods, now 34, is about to be replaced at No 1, either by Lee Westwood or Martin Kaymer, should the rampant 25-year-old German finish in the top two next Sunday week at the Andalucia Masters in Valderrama.
Tiger's fall from grace over the past 11 months has created a vacuum at the top of the game and, as a host of confident young players rush to fill it, a new era of volatility has dawned in golf.
Though Woods' performance at last month's Ryder Cup gave hints of a return to the Tiger of old, players like Kaymer, US Open champion Graeme McDowell and his fellow Ulsterman Rory McIlroy simply will not allow themselves to be intimidated by him.
Woods still might achieve his lifelong goal of surpassing the 18 Major titles won by Jack Nicklaus, but he'll have to do so without the aura of invincibility he used to command. It's fascinating to compare the world's top 10 in August 2008 with the current rankings.
Third two years ago, Harrington is 19th today, returned to the top 20 by that three-stroke Asian Tour win in Malaysia.
Sergio Garcia, broken after his sudden-death defeat by the Irishman at Carnoustie in 2007 and crushed once again by Harrington on the back nine at Oakland Hills, has tumbled from fourth to 68th.
Vijay Singh has also vanished out of the world's elite top 50. The Fijian's slide to 78th has been prompted by a series of injuries as his 47 years on this planet inevitably began to take a toll.
Another on a downward spiral is Henrik Stenson, the hugely gifted Swede, ranked 47th after registering more missed cuts than top-10 finishes in a dark valley period since his victory at the 2009 US Players Championship at Sawgrass.
Back in 2008, second-placed Phil Mickelson was more than eight points behind Tiger in the world rankings; though third now, the reigning Masters champion is just 37 hundredths of a point adrift of Woods and also can claim top spot if he retains his HSBC Champions title in Shanghai in three weeks' time.
Bizarrely, Westwood will overtake Tiger if, as planned, he continues to rest his creaking right calf muscle over the next fortnight. Mind you, Woods will reclaim top spot if he posts his first win of 2010 in that World Golf Championship showdown at Sheshan International Golf Club.
Yet Kaymer is the man in form. Unlike Harrington, who appeared to go into mental stasis after Oakland Hills in 2008, the young German's confidence has soared almost to Tiger-esque levels since August's US PGA Championship victory at Whistling Straits.
Follow-up wins at the Dutch Open and Dunhill Links Championship clinched for Kaymer the first hat-trick of titles on the European Tour since Woods in 2006.
Only the very brave or the foolish would bet against Kaymer winning the Race to Dubai, in which he leads world No 13 McDowell by €995,581 with only a handful of events between now and the season-ending Dubai World Championship.
McDowell will hope to chip away at Kaymer's lead when they go head-to-head for the €500,000 first prize at next week's Andalucia Masters, while winner's cheques worth €830,000-plus at HSBC, €666,000 at the Singapore Open and €900,000 in Dubai suggest there's still a little life left in the race.
McDowell, who showed his true mettle as he clinched victory for Europe at Celtic Manor, is relishing what promises to be the first of many on-course confrontations with Kaymer over the coming months and years. The competition between them is certain to keep the Portrush man's appetite sharp for further golfing glory after his celebrated victory at Pebble Beach last June.
With six first-time winners crowned at the last eight Major championships, golf's pot clearly is bubbling and boiling with fresh talent.
Now his 26-month fast has been broken, Harrington should once again perform with the self-assurance which has been missing from his game over the past two years -- especially at the Majors, in which just one top-10 finish and four missed cuts represent an abject return for a player of his class.
Though delighted to get that winning feeling back once again on Sunday, Harrington insisted it does not mean the floodgates now will open.
"I'm not saying I'm going to go out there and play the greatest golf in the short term," he said. "Though winning is a habit and maybe I could squeeze in another before the end of the year -- that'd be very nice.
"I definitely feel very good about my game, all parts of it," added Harrington, adamant that at no stage over the previous 26 months had his confidence been rocked by prophecies of doom and gloom.
Asked if he'd been concerned by his failure to win, he replied: "That's totally something other people feel. You know, this (win) doesn't change anything either. I can't turn around and say this makes all the difference. I'm still the same player I was last week.
"Everyone likes to put you in a pigeon hole, sending you from hero to zero, but golf doesn't work like that. That's just not the way it is. It's a slow, gradual progression.
"Was I worried about my results in recent months? Not really. I've been doing my own thing and playing my own game. Results are important but you've got to understand, you must go through the entire process to make things happen. You've got to concentrate on doing that, so that's what I've been doing."
Yet his victory in Malaysia certainly confirms for the rest of us that Harrington is ready at last to join the revolution in his sport.