Sunday 22 October 2017

Jimenez's Indian summer gives hope to Harrington

50-year-old's triumph shows Dubliner still has time on his side – if he can dismantle mental barrier

Puff Daddy: Miguel Angel Jimenez enjoying his success at the Spanish Open, where he became the first 50-year old to win on the European Tour,
Puff Daddy: Miguel Angel Jimenez enjoying his success at the Spanish Open, where he became the first 50-year old to win on the European Tour,

Karl McGinty

THE sight of Miguel Angel Jimenez beaming broadly through a cloud of cigar smoke as he thrust the Spanish Open trophy towards heaven should bring joy to Padraig Harrington and anyone else in the grip of golf's mid-life crisis.

Judging by his performance at the HP Byron Nelson Championship, Harrington is emerging, at last, from the fog of self-doubt which shrouded him for nearly three years on and around the putting green.

Okay, the Dubliner faded out of contention on Sunday, tumbling to 22nd after a lot of wide and woolly tee shots – Harrington found just three of 14 fairways – culminated in a four-over 74.

As he had admitted the night before, after completing three straight rounds in the 60s for the first time since the Scottish Open in July 2012, it will probably take a couple more Sunday afternoons in contention to get that winning edge once again.

Harrington (42) was two off the lead on eight-under after 54 holes and on Saturday evening predicted he would probably need to shoot six-under to win. He was bang on, as American Brendan Todd proved by clinching his first PGA Tour title on 14-under with a remarkably polished 66.

"Being honest, I'd say you usually build yourself up for these things," Harrington said of his chances of winning the next day. "You go a few weeks of nice form, like Martin Kaymer, who played well before he got to Sawgrass, and generally that's how it happens.

POSITIVE

"I'll try and take my chances if they come round. If not, it's where I want to be anyway and I've seen some good form in my game, some nice signs. So if it doesn't happen for me tomorrow, it's positive going forward."

The message delivered loud and clear by Jimenez at PGA de Catalunya, as he became the first 50-year-old to win on the European Tour, is that Harrington still has time on his side.

Indeed, after working long, hard and forensically on his physical conditioning with Dr Liam Hennessy, Harrington is fitter than most 40-somethings on Tour. Indeed, as a non-smoker, he's more likely than Jimenez to endure into his 50s.

Incidentally, don't be fooled into thinking the Spaniard takes Rioja on his corn flakes. He certainly enjoys a glass of red wine but not to the extent his legend suggests. As one Tour colleague puts it: "Miguel Angel will have a glass and sip it but compared to some guys, he'd hardly fill the proverbial tooth."

One suspects the hard-grafting Jimenez has not yet finished making history or chipping away at the long-held convention that professionals over 50 must be put out to pasture on the seniors tour.

Winning his native Spanish Open at the 27th attempt on a brutally tough course is merely the latest in an ever-lengthening line of achievements by this remarkable man from Malaga.

His nickname, 'The Mechanic', comes from his youth when Jimenez, the fifth of seven sons, worked briefly as an apprentice in a garage. Still, it fits his game quite nicely.

He doesn't hit the ball a mile and his flat swing may look a little ungainly but he works and shapes his shots expertly, while he has the touch and know-how of a master craftsman around the green.

Most of all, he's confident in himself and comfortable in any environment. For example, Jimenez was fourth last month at the Masters, the best by a player his age or older since Sam Snead finished third in 1963, yet few would nominate Augusta National as a course that suits him.

In contrast, Wentworth, venue for this week's BMW PGA, certainly does. Jimenez was first down the Burma Road in 2008 and fourth last year, so don't be surprised if a high finish there propels him into the all-important top-nine in the Ryder Cup points list.

Considering he led after 36 holes at Muirfield last July, Jimenez could also contend at this year's Open in Hoylake. So a fifth Ryder Cup appearance at Gleneagles and the honour of being Europe's eldest campaigner is well within his ambit.

Evergreen Irishman Des Smyth, succeeded by Jimenez as Europe's oldest Tournament winner, believes age gives the Spaniard an advantage on Tour.

"There is an added element as you get older," Smyth explains. "When I was in my 40s, I got great pleasure from the thought that 'I'm still out here, still competing with these guys and actually playing just as well as they are'.

"I enjoyed myself so much I got good performances as a consequence.

"Fitness is important but I think self-belief is the biggest thing of all. Tom Watson proved it at the 2009 Open in Turnberry. Bernhard Langer proved it at this year's Masters and Miguel Angel Jimenez is proving it now."

One suspects Harrington is dismantling the mental barrier which confronts many world class golfers in their early 40s, especially when it comes to the cerebral art of putting.

For example, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen turned to the belly putter in an effort to overcome demons on the green ... Els went on to win the 2012 Open at Lytham, followed by Mickelson last year at Muirfield.

Trying to live-up to stellar achievement at the Majors clearly exacts a toll, especially with so many young gunslingers constantly popping up on Tour.

Of course, there are other reasons why Harrington has slipped far down the pole, not least the outlawing of box-grooves in January 2010.

Yet in Texas he suddenly began to polish off putts like the Major-winner of old.

Smyth says: "Padraig's a smart guy. I wouldn't be giving up on him. I think it's just a period in his career. He's got plenty of time. Like Miguel Angel, he could be winning tournaments well into his 40s."

Irish Independent

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