Sunday 22 October 2017

Harrington smiling through five-star pain of descent

Despite a career crisis, Pádraig Harrington's spirit remains unbowed, writes Dermot Gilleece

Padraig Harrington
Padraig Harrington

Dermot Gilleece

You attempt to convey the enormous fund of goodwill that's out there, aching for him to turn the corner. Wondering if the good times can possibly return. If he'll ever win again. And by way of response, Pádraig Harrington smiles that familiar smile.

After a thoughtful pause, the country's greatest golfer says quietly: "I'm very conscious right now of the general public pulling for me. I know they wish me well. And that's a good thing. I'm happy to have people talking about me. You don't want to be forgotten, that's for sure."

He went on: "I get feedback. And I use the public's support for everything I can get out of it. Like when you use the screams for an autograph to inflate your ego when you need it. Other times, you simply calm down and accept the lows.

"Support is very important. Every time I've had a bad round of golf, I make sure I spend time signing autographs. The belief that whatever the scoreboard may say, someone has made a point of waiting for that autograph, gives you a bit of a boost."

The chilling reality of his decline is indicated by a current status of 206th in the world rankings. Then there's the advertising gap in the centre of his cap which was filled in November 2008 by the American finance company FTI in a three-year deal reported to be worth $12 million. A gap, which the most recent occupants, GOFUZED.com, vacated about six weeks ago.

You suggest a scenario which no great sportsperson dares to contemplate: what if an outstanding career was already at an end. Wouldn't it still have been a terrific ride?

This time there was no hesitation. "It's been way, way, way beyond my expectations," he said, as if searching for superlatives. "Miles above anything I dreamed." Worth all the recent pain? "Absolutely." Another pause, then: "Anyway, it's five-star pain. Let's be real."

The remarkable strength of Harrington's personality was reflected in the way he dominated last week's press launch of a development plan for the newly formed Confederation of Golf in Ireland (CGI). And his appeal remains vibrant, only because of an enduring optimism about the game which transformed his life.

In a week in which Rory McIlroy celebrated his 25th birthday, it was fascinating to recall Harrington at the same milestone on August 31, 1996, when he was still more than three weeks away from completing his first year as a tournament professional. Which highlights how different tournament careers can be.

McIlroy entered this weekend's Players Championship as the winner of two Major championships and with nine other tournament victories on three different continents. And when Tiger Woods turned 25, I remember noting that with five Major titles to his credit, he had already earned sufficient money to send himself and 100 of his colleagues into comfortable retirement.

By 25 . . . Bobby Jones (on March 17, 1927) had won two US Opens (1923 and 1926), one Open Championship (1926) and two US Amateurs (1924 and 1925); Ben Hogan (on August 13, 1937) was impoverished and nine years away from his first Major title; Jack Nicklaus (on January 21, 1965) had won the US Amateur twice (1959 and 1961), the US Open (1962), the US Masters (1963) and USPGA (1963), and Seve Ballesteros (on April 9, 1982) had won the Open (1979) and the Masters (1980).

By permitting us such insight into his life, on and off the golf course, Harrington has thrown fascinating light on the actual process of winning Major championships. "In a way, I created a monster," he said. "I created expectations that, frankly, are quite unreal when you look at recent happenings in the game."

He explained: "Nobody has won more Majors than me in the last seven years. And I can think of only one player who has actually got better since winning a Major. By that I mean he has enhanced his career in terms of his golfing ability as in where he was and where he got to through his Major win.

"That player is Graeme McDowell who became more of a competitive force in Majors after Pebble Beach in 2010 than he was prior to it. Bear in mind that once you've won a Major, it's the only thing that defines your career. When they introduce me on a first tee, it's not '25-time tournament winner Pádraig Harrington'. They announce me as 'three-time Major winner . . .'

"So, while winning another tournament would be nice, it won't change my CV."

All of which reminded me of an incident related movingly by leading caddie, Billy Foster, when he was bagman for Ballesteros in the Majorca Open early in 1993. That was when danger signs first

became evident of a game in serious decline.

In that particular tournament, cruelly destructive ball-striking caused the proud Spaniard to repeatedly bite his lower lip in frustration. All the while, Foster was becoming increasingly upset by his master's torment at figures soaring towards 20-over par. Finally, he could take no more.

In a voice trembling with emotion, the young Yorkshireman turned to his master on the 10th tee. "Let's go in," he urged. "There's no point in torturing yourself any more." Whereupon Ballesteros replied: "No Billy. We are professionals. We must battle, regardless. We will carry on and finish the job."

Though he couldn't know it, Ballesteros was more than a year past his last tournament win – the 1995 Spanish Open – when he competed in the Irish Open in July 1996. Still nine months short of his 40th birthday, it had been eight years since his last Major triumph in the 1988 Open Championship at Royal Lytham.

On being asked the secret of golf, during that appearance at Druids Glen, he replied pensively: "To forget". Which remains a profoundly sad memory.

Harrington, who succeeded Ballesteros as Spanish Open champion, has yet to reach such a point, though he admitted to seeking ways of coping with the stress of his current plight. Reminding us that the higher the mountain, the more difficult the descent.

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