Hats off to our greatest sporting hero
A couple of years back Pádraig Harrington was playing in the WGC-NEC Invitational tournament in Akron, Ohio. He was about to putt when a couple of young men started making a lot of noise. An apparently unflustered Harrington turned to the culprits and asked, "hey lads, could you just give me a minute?" After making the putt, he thanked them for their consideration and continued his round.
A moment like that is just as much a part of what Pádraig Harrington is all about as the extraordinary five wood to the 17th green which clinched his second Open title in a row this day last week. Because one of the Rathfarnham golfer's great achievements is that he has remained a genuinely nice, humble and grounded human being throughout his career. He has shown that the pursuit of sporting excellence does not require outlandish egotism or prima donna antics. Arrogance is a quality which doesn't even figure on his radar.
Yet this low-key approach to the game has worked to the extent that you could now make a strong case for Pádraig Harrington being the finest sportsman ever produced by this country. Last year's capture of the Open was already one of the great achievements in Irish sport but his repeat victory is of a different order altogether. Who now is greater than Harrington in the pantheon? At the very top must be Seán Kelly with his nine wins in cycling's classics, that outlandishly demanding sport's version of the majors. Only one cyclist, the practically superhuman Eddie Merckx, has bettered that total while no cyclist has matched Kelly's feat of remaining world number one for six years. In the same sport, Stephen Roche's 1987 treble of Tour de France, World Championship and Giro D'Italia is another timeless achievement.
Ronnie Delany's Olympic gold medal over 1,500m in 1956 marks him down as one of our very greatest as does John Treacy's silver medal in the 1984 marathon in a time which would have won any Olympics before or since. Eamonn Coghlan and Sonia O'Sullivan were world champions in their day and world class for many years, Johnny Giles and Roy Keane were key players on two of the finest club sides in history. They were the best of our best, yet Harrington loses no caste by being compared with any of them.
You could even argue that golf trumps cycling given its far superior global reach. The current world top 100 in golf contains players from USA, Australia, South Africa, Japan, Argentina, India, Thailand, Canada, China and Fiji along with stars from over a dozen European countries. World rankings are precisely that in golf which is why Harrington's current number three position is so uniquely impressive in Irish sport. For all their greatness, it's questionable whether Delany, Coghlan, O'Sullivan, Giles and Keane would have ranked in the top three of everyone involved in their sports. Harrington may indeed be sui generis.
The annexation of a second major removes him from the company of golfers whose single day in the sun can be put down to a combination of good fortune and once-off inspiration. Yet some genuine all-time greats; Lloyd Mangrum, Gene Littler, Tom Kite and Ian Woosnam among them, could not win more than a single major. And the quality of the names who won two majors indicates just what a tricky feat this has been. At present, Harrington is shoulder to shoulder with immortals like of Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw, Jose Maria Olazabal, Jack Burke, Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman.
There are also great players who could not even win one major. The claims of Colin Montgomerie, Bruce Crampton, Mike Souchak and our own Christy O'Connor Senior notwithstanding, the title of best player never to win a major would seem to be the property of Doug Sanders who won 20 times on the USPGA tour, finished in the top 10 in 13 majors and was runner-up in four. To add insult to injury, every time a player lines up a short putt to win a major, a golf commentator somewhere in the world is mentioning the two and a half footer Sanders missed at the 18th in the 1970 Open.
Yet while the likes of Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke must wonder if they will end their careers contending for the same unwanted crown as Sanders and Montgomerie, Harrington must now be eyeing the European greats ahead of him on the all-time majors list. It may seem unlikely that he will match the six won by Nick Faldo or the five won by Seve Ballesteros but, then again, Jack Nicklaus was winning majors up to the age of 46. Which gives Harrington another 10 years or maybe even, judging by Norman's bit of time travel last week, the guts of two decades. Though, and this is the kernel of his achievement so far, majors are damnably hard things to win.
One thing for sure is that, should he add further majors to his tally, Harrington will always be an extremely popular winner. We're wont to overestimate the affect of our devastating Hibernian charm on foreign audiences but Pádraig Harrington is one Irishman who genuinely inspires affection wherever he
goes. The most curmudgeonly of golf pundits become positively sentimental when Harrington hoves into view. Even the most jingoistic of US audiences can't find it in their hearts to insult a man who might have been created by some PC-conscious scriptwriter charged with the task of showing that all European golfers are not like Monty.
Watching Harrington being interviewed always makes me feel slightly nostalgic. The dignity, modesty and calm he exudes are reminiscent of nothing so much of the hurling and Gaelic football stars of the 1970s and '80s, men who always seemed slightly bashful about the prospect that they would say anything which might be construed as boasting.
Having done the business on the pitch, they felt no need to underline their performances by post-match verbals. Being of this ilk, Harrington provides a refreshing reminder of what we used to be like and does not follow the current fashion where brashness is a virtue and victory is seen as an answer to some nebulous band of critics and begrudgers. He did not, for example, storm into the Birkdale press tent and say, "There were a lot of people implying that my victory last year was a fluke and I'd have to say that those people got their answer now. I'd say they're rightly sickened that I've won it again."
He did not say, "I'm a winner. Above all else, Pádraig Harrington is about being a winner." There are no newspaper interviews where Harrington inveighs against "fuckers in this game who like to do you down," or reveals at length some tell-tale incident where he broke the rules in order to get ahead. In fact, he gives the impression that he would regard such capering as the height of bullshit, though he'd be too polite to say so.
Yet last Sunday this most mild-mannered man, while leading the Open by two shots, decided to go for broke and hit a five wood to within three feet of the 17th, thus proving that the ordinariness of his demeanour is matched only by the extraordinary nature of his talent.
Pádraig's late father Paddy once said that his son "never gets stressed. He might worry about the family and Ireland and not letting them down but never about himself."
He needn't worry. No-one lets us down less.