Harrington motivated by Grand plans
Dubliner sets goal of becoming first European to achieve career Slam
IT'S a wintry Saturday morning and the fields of Rathmichael are covered by a thick, soft blanket of snow, yet the conversation around the table in Padraig Harrington's kitchen has turned to salad days at golf's Majors.
The new year has brought with it the rich promise of adventure. Even the venues for this season's four Major Championships have a magical ring to them.
Augusta National, Pebble Beach, St Andrews and Whistling Straits! Brace yourselves for some real swashbuckling action from these Three Musketeers and their young sidekick d'Artagnan.
Harrington might not have won on Tour since that famous Sunday afternoon at the US PGA Championship in Oakland Hills, when he captured his third Major title in 13 months, but his confidence and ambition have not been dented by the travails of 2009.
Quite the opposite. The Dubliner (38) is determined to convert the ring craft and experience he has gained into further Major Championship history, with the completion of a career Grand Slam especially prominent on his wish list.
Just five players in history, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, have won all four Major titles, and Harrington admits he's inspired by the thought of becoming the first European to join that exclusive club.
"Yes, I do think of winning a career Grand Slam. It's definitely a motivating thing," he admits, adding with a gleam in his eye: "So is the yearly Grand Slam!"
Seriously, Padraig? "Yeah, why not," he replies with a shrug. "Everything is possible. Every day I go and hit a practice shot, I hope it's the day I find the secret (of the perfect golf swing) and I don't mind saying it.
"I saw an interview with Arnold Palmer when he was 70, coming off the course after a Seniors Tour event, and he told the world he believed he'd found the secret that day. I laughed and though 'that'll be me. I'll be just like that in another 40 years'."
These are especially exciting times to be Irish as Harrington targets Major glory and gifted youngster Rory McIlroy rises to the challenge of his first season of full membership on the US PGA Tour.
Neither man has played competitively for the past six weeks. Understandably, McIlroy didn't lift a club as he recovered from a hugely rewarding year which included his first victory as a pro; 13 top-10s on Tour; an impressive showing on the weekend at all four Majors; third place at the US PGA and a runner-up finish behind Lee Westwood in Europe's Race to Dubai.
The Holywood youngster flew to his winter training base in Dubai late last week for what he colourfully described as "boot camp" before his return to European Tour action at next week's Abu Dhabi Championship.
As ever, Harrington worked on his game and his physical conditioning right through the winter break, come hail rain or snow. In recent days, he's been doing three ball-striking sessions in the nets in his basement, plus three daily stints in the gym.
His competitive campaign opens at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles in three weeks' time and Harrington will begin the countdown to his new season in earnest when he flies to the Portuguese Algarve on Thursday for a 10-day session with coach Bob Torrance and fitness guru Dr Liam Hennessy.
One of the highlights in the early part of the season will be McIlroy's return to The Masters. One can hardly wait to see this hugely gifted and brilliantly aggressive youngster take on Augusta National once again.
Especially given his performance on Sunday at last year's Masters when McIlroy birdied six of the last 10 holes and played the back nine in a thrilling 31 strokes. However, one should be careful not to burden the 20-year-old with expectations of victory at the Majors.
In boxing terminology, McIlroy's talent gives him a puncher's chance of winning a Major but he's more likely to have to learn how to contend on golf's greatest stage before actually winning one.
Years of hard work, trial and error went into Harrington's conversion into one of world golf's most formidable competitors and it was fascinating to hear him explain why he didn't fully believe himself capable of winning a Major until Sunday at the US Masters in April 2007.
Though he'd just missed the play-off by one at the 2002 British Open, Harrington explains: "I played the most unbelievable golf of my life from tee to green at Muirfield but I'd an awful week on the greens there, probably my worst ever.
"Obviously I got into contention somewhat because Ernie came back, but I always felt that was a blip in my career," he adds. Harrington wouldn't feel he made a comprehensive challenge for victory at a Major until Winged Foot in 2006, when he finished fifth at the US Open.
"Winged Foot was the biggest one for me as I prepared well, played well and got into contention. So I went to Augusta the following April thinking 'right, we learned a lot from Winged Foot, let's take that confidence and know-how and see if we can get it working at The Masters'.
"So I went in there, applied myself, hit the shots and felt good," he adds, who emerged from Augusta in a tie for seventh place but, more importantly, convinced he could win at the Majors; that self-belief certainly stood to him three months later at Carnoustie.
"That Masters was really important because I rate Augusta National as the most comprehensive examination of the golf game. I knew if I could get it working there, I could do it anywhere."
Now that he's won three Major titles, Harrington knows he can do it again and again. So don't be surprised if he gets one step closer to that career Grand Slam at The Masters in April or the US Open at Pebble Beach in June.