Sport Golf

Thursday 8 December 2016

Harrington revitalised by tough Royal Co Down test

Published 27/05/2015 | 02:30

Ernie Els makes his way to the second tee box during the second practice day of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down yesterday (Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE)
Ernie Els makes his way to the second tee box during the second practice day of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down yesterday (Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE)

Padraig Harrington is not exactly going in blind at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, but the blinkers have certainly come off regarding his feelings towards the Royal County Down course.

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Twice in his life, and many years ago when he was a carefree amateur, Harrington played this venerable links layout scenically situated in the shadow of Slieve Donard.

On one occasion, competing in a Hilary Society outing off the blue tees, he shot 73 on a tough winter's day in the early '90s.

The nearest challenger scored 78. Not a bad performance at all, but Harrington found the course intimidating, somewhat daunting, and not hugely to his liking.

Somewhat to his surprise, the three-time Major champion and recent winner of the Honda Classic, discovered that maturity and tons of experience playing golf all over the world has changed his attitude to the Newcastle layout.

"I played the course twice in my life up until three or four weeks ago. I just played two outings here in a winter alliance," he said.

"It was not a golf course that I was familiar with. It didn't hold many championships in my days as an amateur, so I didn't really know much about it. That's why I came here recently and I really enjoyed it.

Blind

"It was always known as a big, tough, course with a lot of blind shots. While it does have some big holes, it certainly was not as intimidating as what I remember as a kid. It's a tough course, but I warmed to it a lot more four weeks ago, put it like that.

"But then, I only played it in January before. Maybe playing it in May is a bit better."

The Dubliner was in remarkably good humour given the disappointment of missing out on a play-off in the 36-hole US Open qualifier played at Walton Heath on Monday.

A bogey at the last meant that the odds have lengthened against his participation in Chambers Bay next month. That does not deter Harrington, who will remain optimistic until the final whistle blows on his chances.

"I believe that the top 60 after the St Jude's Classic still get into the US Open. So I have this week and the St Jude Classic. I won't play the one in between," he said. "I have to win 25 World Ranking points in that time, something like that.

"Having missed out yesterday was very disappointing, but it will be a lot more disappointing in three weeks' time if I'm sitting on the couch watching it on TV and realising how close it was (at Walton Heath) and really having done the hard work."

His immediate priority is to draw on the memory bank of hard-earned links experience which came to the fore in brilliant fashion for his Open Championship success in 2007 at Carnoustie and in '08 at Royal Birkdale.

The European Tour are monitoring the weather forecast for the week and if conditions become severe, tees will be moved up and pin positions set on flatter areas of greens.

Perhaps it's the masochist in Harrington, or, more likely, his growing up playing golf in the vagaries of the Irish weather, but he won't complain if the going gets tough.

"I would prefer they put it up to us, absolutely. I would rather see level par win this week than 18-under par. But you know, with a tough forecast, I would suggest they're more likely to go easy than not," he said. "I don't have control over that.

"You know, the type of golf courses I win on are tough golf courses, so I like to see the tough venues."

The word 'pressure' may, as the late, great Páidí Ó Sé used to say, apply only to tyres, and the vast majority of golfers in this country would give their eye teeth to play in an Irish Open.

For the men inside the ropes, however, there is an annual weight of expectation that grows from within and from outside influences that can affect the performance of home players.

Harrington has a great solution for that one - win the blessed tournament!

"It's not so bad on me now because I've won it already. And I think, as well, I'm much more experienced," he explained.

"It was a very stressful event for me earlier on in my career, just a lot of extra requirements during the year, a lot of expectations. It was tough.

"You could go to a Major and have less of an ordeal than you would at an Irish Open.

"But as you get used to it, you understand that those expectations are more well wishes, and you can enjoy that sort of thing now."

Harrington does not pretend to care about any other player's performance - "Let's be blunt about it, the one I'm worried about is me" - but he expects a good effort from Rory McIlroy, who has extra duties and commitments this week as the tournament host.

"I don't think it will be a problem for Rory. I, for one, would not be discounting him," he said.

Irish Independent

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