Padraig Harrington on the career-defining shot which inspired Birkdale Open victory in 2008
Padraig Harrington is like a child whose birthday falls on Christmas Day – he is not quite sure which to celebrate. Is it the 10th anniversary of his first Open victory, or the return to Royal Birkdale, the course where he retained the Claret Jug the following year?
All Harrington does know is that the shot of his which will be replayed most during this Open week will not, in fact, be the one which holds pride of place in his career. As brilliant as the five-wood to three feet on the 71st hole was at Birkdale nine years ago, it was the lob-wedge to three feet at Carnoustie 12 months previous which allowed that fairytale to unfold.
“People say to me that approach to 17th must have been the best you ever hit, but it wasn’t - it was on the 72nd hole the year before,” Harrington said. “I’d had a one-shot lead on the tee, push my drive in the water and then my next into the burn in front of the green as well. If someone had told me at that moment, ‘Padraig, you can walk off now and get in your car and leave’ I honestly would have bitten off their hand. But that was not an option.
“And it was a miracle. My caddie talked me around, stuck to his job and in three minutes I went from dying a death, from the worst I'd ever felt on a golf course to hitting that chip shot like I was a kid showing off. It was a phenomenal turnaround. The most vital three minutes of my career, no doubt. What would have happened to me if I’d taken three to get down from there and lost by one. How would I have coped? We don’t know, cant know, but I don’t think Birkdale would have happened."
However, it was famously not merely the swing of a club which inspired him to almost immediate redemption – as he went on to beat Sergio Garcia in a play-off – but the face of a three-year-old. Paddy ran on to that 18th green and jumped into his father’s arms. “It had been another quick change of emotions as after tapping in for my double, I still thought 'I've blown the Open’,” Harrington said. “But then there he was, looking at me like a champion. I definitely wasn’t a loser in his eyes. It flicked another switch.”
Was that tear-jerking moment really a decade ago? That is hard to believe, although the time passed is measured right there in that tall 13-year-old. “It is interesting as everyone who sees my son now says, ‘oh my god, this isn’t the same little boy who ran on the green and then put the ladybirds in the Jug is he?” Harrington said. “That brings it home. He doesn’t remember it, but he thinks he does. He has been reminded about it that many times.”
Young Paddy has the whole incredible narrative in his mind. How the Dubliner went on to make it a hat-trick of more majors in the ensuring 13 months, next at the Merseyside links and then four weeks later at the USPGA in Detroit. Except this was not just to be a personal tale of glory, as it also represented a huge continental shift.
In the previous 10 years and 40 majors, Europe had won only two titles, with the most recent being eight years before. From that 2007 Open, Europe won 14 majors in the next 10 years and 40 majors. Harrington truly is the blue-and-gold godfather of his golfing age.
“Yeah, that Open win and the ones which followed definitely seemed to spark something in the Europeans,” Harrington said, albeit with an air of humbled reluctance. “I assume the other players looked at me and thought ‘yeah, Harrington can hole a putt, he’s good under pressure, but hey I can do what he can do’. And then it works from there. The youngsters will be looking at Danny [Willett] and thinking ‘what he’s got that I haven’t?’. It becomes the norm.”
Yet it was not quite that way with Harrington. “I’ve been told that for 60 years or whatever it was, none of the Irish guys believed an Irish guy could win a major,” he said. “The beauty of me is that I never really thought about it like that. All of my career, I’ve tried not to be a sheep and tried to buck the trend and I never assumed I couldn’t win a major. There was an innocence to me.”
Alas, Harrington has concluded that his age of innocence has gone, although he is adamant that, contrary to widespread perception, the end did not occur due to the incessant tinkering with his swing.
“I’m stuck in that hole of the story coming to a close when I changed my technique at the end of 2008,” he said. “I actually played better in 2009 and 2010 than I did in 2008. The problem was that my expectation was that my focus would get better and I would get even stronger between the ear. And when I didn’t, I became intolerant. I’d seen how good I could be when I was mentally on it and I became overly frustrated when I was not on it. I will never convince everyone that’s what actually happened.”
Harrington, 45, is at peace now and after his fine showing at the Scottish Open for two rounds last week, this makes him a dangerous floater on the Southport coastline.
“I’m at stage in my career where I’m enjoying it and going to revel in going to Birkdale and next year at Carnoustie as the last champions there,” he said. “Golf still interests me intensely, so this is a busman’s holiday. There’s not much I’m going to do from here on in that’s going to change my legacy. If I won another major it would be four. Is that such a big deal more than three?
“Yeah I’m still competitive; I’ve been winning one event a year for a while and to be honest I’m in a better place than for a long time with my mind and my putting.Plus, Birkdale suited me once, so will obviously will do so again. And the majority of the field out there, even some of the major-winners, will be playing with a point to prove. Not me. I’ve nothing to prove whatsoever.
"Now, I’d just go ahead and hit that chip on the 72nd hole. I wouldn’t get it any closer, mind you. And that is why, when I look back, I still find that shot so amazing.”