Karl MacGinty: Same sport, different games
It's often said the margins between success and failure are infinitesimal at the very highest levels in professional sport.
Yet the consequences are absolutely massive. Though Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington both tee it up this week in the Wells Fargo Championship, they might as well be playing on different planets.
Fascinatingly, every week at every tournament, men dig desperately in the dirt for survival alongside those fortunate few who seem to gouge up gold nuggets with every divot.
The relative fortunes of Harrington and McIlroy perfectly illustrate the vast chasms which separate so many golfers even as they play their rounds on the same fairways.
McIlroy slipped momentarily out of the top 10 in golf's official world rankings yesterday but will draw inspiration this week from his return to Quail Hollow, scene of his spectacular first US Tour victory in 2010.
While the 24-year-old Ulsterman this year once again walks among the anointed, fate forces Harrington to march with the damned.
Like the vast majority of those who regularly play in the shadow of the guillotine, Harrington spends the first half of each tournament constantly looking over his shoulder.
Three Major titles count for precious little in this grim downward spiral, where hope too often is trumped by fear.
At least he has those trophies and the material comforts they bring.
Each week, many others must endure by more desperate circumstances.
Harrington is certainly not alone ... though on too many Fridays in recent times, he must have felt that way.
FRIDAY FEELING ALWAYS HAUNTING HARRINGTON
THE numbers all add up to trouble for Padraig Harrington, though simple statistics cannot explain why the Dubliner is drawn to the cut line each Friday like a moth to the flame.
Harrington ranks 164th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy; 159th in Greens in Regulation and 187th in putting ... so missing 14 of 29 tournament weekends since the 2013 Masters is hardly surprising.
Yet close examination of his five missed cuts in nine outings in the US this year paints a graphic picture of the harrowing situation in which Harrington, 42, finds himself.
Last Friday was the most recent of a series of occasions in which he played himself into a position of relative safety in the second round and then crumpled down the stretch.
Even Harrington was staggered to make the weekend in New Orleans after missing two relatively short putts for par in the latter stages. "When I finished Friday, I was sure I'd missed the cut."
He wasn't so lucky on five other occasions this year.
In Phoenix, for example, he recovered well from a slipshod first-round 73 by playing 17 holes on Friday in three-under ... and then missed the cut by one with a three-putt bogey at the last.
At Riviera, Harrington rebounded from a first-round 75 by picking up three birdies in a fault-free opening 14 holes on Friday, only to bogey two of the final three and miss the weekend.
At the Honda, a calamitous double-bogey six at the final hole of his second round sent him packing.
In San Antonio and Houston, it was deja vu all over again. Bogeys on 12, 14 and 16 caused him to miss out by two at the Valero Texas Open.
Then Harrington went from one inside the cut after 13 on Friday in Houston to four beyond the pale as dropped shots at 15 and 17 were followed by the triple-bogey at 18 which ended his desperate race for a place at the Masters.
In March at the Honda, Harrington gave Irish Golf Desk an insight into his Friday torment.
"When you are going out one-over, you are thinking what the cut is going to be and when you are thinking that, you move towards it.
"I've missed three cuts on the bubble this year (including Abu Dhabi) and just can't get away from it."
Though he made it through the 54-hole threshold at Pebble Beach, Harrington blew himself out of contention for a bumper cheque by dropping six shots in a calamitous three-hole stretch on Saturday.
And after working his way into contention for a top-10 finish at Arnie Palmer's Invitational, he simply imploded on Sunday, making double-bogey at one, followed by dropped shots at two, three, six, seven, eight and nine to reach the turn in eight-over.
His putting average that week was good on Thursday, moderate on Friday and Saturday but abysmal on Sunday as Harrington lost 4.5 strokes to the rest of the field on the greens at Bay Hill.
While skill and technique are important, pressure and expectation are the real game-breakers in golf.
For example, the fact that Shane Lowry's Tour exemption for winning the 2012 Portugal Masters expires at the end of this season might have something to do with him missing six of eight cuts as he tries to accumulate enough cash on the road in 2014 to retain his European card.
Harrington, sliding down the ratings to 196th in the world and facing another frantic race to qualify for next month's US Open, is caught in a vortex which no amount of hard work or good intentions can arrest.
Until he has enough good fortune to break this cycle, Harrington is condemned to tee it up each week with Friday on his mind.
MERCURIAL MCILROY RETAINS AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES, POWER AND TALENT
INTRIGUING to read over the weekend that Rory McIlroy still trails Padraig Harrington in Irish sport's 'Rich List'.
The Dubliner's fortune was estimated at €43m, up €2m from last year, while the Holywood native's personal wealth supposedly rose to €34m in the last 12 months.
How strange ... in papers lodged with the Commercial Court last October, solicitors for McIlroy's former management company, Horizon, revealed he "will receive approximately $50m in 2013 under contracts negotiated by our clients."
That's roughly €36m.
Meanwhile, McIlroy's earnings from endorsements, sponsorships and appearance fees in the previous five-and-a-half years since turning professional can be conservatively estimated at €20m.
As he's also banked €29,046,088 in prize money, McIlroy's gross income amounted to at least €86m.
Listed as having a Monaco address on court documents, McIlroy surely didn't shed more than €50m in taxes, fees and expenses.
Combined with the gaps in Harrington's current sponsorship portfolio, evidenced, for example, by the available space on the front of his baseball cap, one can't help wondering about the guesstimates in the 'Sunday Times' Rich List.
There's a reason why McIlroy is being paid a reported €100m over five years by Nike to join Tiger as their front man on Tour ... at his best, the Ulsterman is the world's most exciting golfer by far.
As they did with Russell Henley, McIlroy's conqueror in sudden death at the Honda Classic, and Ross Fisher at the Tshwane Open, Nike feted yet another member of their team, South Korea's Seung-Yul Noh (22), after Sunday's splendid victory in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
Even at a time when golf celebrates a powerful influx of young talent, like Noh, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed, Russell English and Henley, McIlroy's natural flair and effortless power ultimately set him apart.
Apart from that 'elephant in the courtroom' and his tendency to throw in one catastrophic round each year at Augusta, McIlroy's horizons (ouch) are clear.
Though Justin Rose has displaced him from the world top-10 for the first time since January 2011, McIlroy can bounce straight back this week in a fascinating Wells Fargo shoot-out with England's US Open champ, Noh, Henley, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler.
McIlroy won at Quail Hollow in 2010 and was beaten there in sudden death by Fowler two years later.
As next Sunday is his 25th birthday, there could be no better time or place for Rory to register his first victory of the PGA Tour season.