Tour seeing the sense in Harrington's global view
When Pádraig Harrington speaks his mind, European golf listens, writes Dermot Gilleece
Published 18/10/2009 | 05:00
By lunchtime here in Vilamoura last Thursday, Pádraig Harrington was still awaiting a well-flagged invitation from his peers to address a crucial players' meeting at 7.30 that evening.
And at 4.0pm, Thomas Bjorn, the committee's chairman, insisted to the Dubliner that he had resigned his position and, most definitely, would not be presiding over the meeting.
All this confusion, however, didn't divert Harrington from confirming his status as the most influential player on the European Tour. Indeed the Tour's chief executive, George O'Grady, went so far as to describe him as "a sounding board to me, right from the beginning, on how we can develop the European Tour on a global basis."
Yet Harrington shouldn't be viewed as a prospective golfing consultant, desperate to generate cash from any source so as to compensate for alleged losses on the world's financial markets. The story has been doing the rounds in Dublin golfing circles as to how Harrington's poor form earlier this year was due not to an ailing swing but to devastating money problems. When I put this to him, his initial response was an ironic laugh.
Then he said: "Nasty things have been said about me and I really don't want to lend credence to them by making any comment. For instance, one of the tabloids wanted to know if it was true that I had lost €20 million in investments with (Bernie) Madoff, (Allen) Stanford and a few others. They were obviously keen to cover all the bases."
He paused, drew a deep breath and continued: "The answer is that I haven't lost greatly in any ventures. I will not suggest that I was immune from everything, but nothing has happened that has had any material effect on me, financially." This disclosure was made, not in any great hope of silencing the rumour-mongers, but with an acceptance that it was part of the price he has had to pay for his success.
Though his focus this week in Portugal was strictly on golfing matters, he found himself inadvertently caught up in a public row with Bjorn. It stemmed largely from a throwaway, lighthearted suggestion from Harrington that the changes in regulations for the leading players, proposed by the Tournament Committee, constituted restrictive practice which could be a matter for the European Union.
Bjorn, an emotional man at the best of times, was incensed. And it was suggested here that he and Harrington were at daggers drawn. In truth, both are long-time friends.
I remember when Bjorn considered turning to Bob Torrance as his coach, his main concern was not to do anything that would upset Harrington. "Pádraig's reaction was that the world is big enough to have both of us sharing the same coach and that maybe something good would come out of it," said the Dane. "It was no more than I expected. In a sense, I think he longs for me to play well because our rivalry has given him a big kick."
Against this background, reports of a bitter feud between them simply didn't make sense. In truth, they had lengthy chats last week behind the scenes to ensure that the Tour's best interests were served. And they embraced each other after the meeting when, incidentally, Bjorn did eventually go through with his resignation threat.
The proposed change for next season was that while fulfilling the requirement of 12 events to retain membership of the European Tour, those players like Harrington, who are actively involved in the US, would have to play in four out of six specified tournaments -- the BMW/PGA Championship, the French Open, Scottish Open, Irish Open, Dunhill Links and the Portugal Masters. This was aimed at strengthening the fields for the benefit of the sponsors and would clearly be welcomed by 3Mobile at Killarney next year.
Harrington has no problem with this from a personal standpoint, given that he has already played four of them this year -- the Irish Open, French Open, Dunhill Links and this week's Portugal Masters. But he believes the European Tour need to take a global view of their activities by recognising that the future expansion of the professional game lies in the Far East.
With two and a half billion people -- more than Europe and the US combined -- it would be foolhardy to ignore China and India. Yet the Tour has lost its two Indian events played last year, one of which, incidentally, was won by Damien McGrane. And while next year's Ryder Cup clubhouse at Celtic Manor, at 85,000 sq ft, is the biggest in Europe, the one at Mission Hills in China, is 750,000 square feet.
In addressing his fellow players, Harrington pointed out that the European Tour should not be limited by its name.
"If we're to compete with the US, we must consider ourselves to be a world tour," he said. "And under that banner, we cannot exclude the Asian events from this criterion and make them feel less important to us. The growth potential of Asia is illustrated by the fact that Tim Finchem (US Tour commissioner) is currently on a three-week tour there, trying to establish tournaments for the PGA Tour. We should also be looking at South America, which should be capable of delivering a few $5 million tournaments."
As it happened, Sao Paolo provided Harrington with his second tour win in 2000, the weekend before he made his US Masters debut.
But what of the travelling costs for rookies just out of tour school? "You'd obviously have to do it on a budget," he replied. "I did it; going straight away to South Africa and Australia. I got absolutely no money up front when I signed with IMG. All I had was MMI, my sponsors, and but for them, I'd have had to turn to my parents."
Though his friend, Paul McGinley, greatly respects Harrington's views on a global game, he remains at odds with him about the need to protect the European market. In his role as a committee member, McGinley said: "It was a constructive meeting and Pádraig's views were very welcome. In the current climate, however, the key concern, in my view, is home-grown Europe-based events not getting the support of the top players.
"Even with Finchem's moves, I don't see us having to compete with the Americans in the Far East, for the simple reason that their players are notoriously poor travellers. This was emphasised by their foray into Korea a few years ago when they couldn't get a field together, despite a huge purse."
Meanwhile, after representing the Tour and the Royal and Ancient at the International Olympic Committee meeting two weeks ago and having earlier canvassed American players to join the Race to Dubai, Harrington finds himself in the dual role of golfing ambassador and respected advisor.
"In terms of my own golf, I certainly wouldn't want to be doing it all the time," he said. "It would bother me if I was preparing for a major. As I see it, I've only one opinion, the same as every other member on the tour. The difference is I'm asked it more often because I've been successful."
He went on to articulate his main concern as the possibility that the tour would become more restrictive. "Last year, they changed the membership rule from 11 to 12 events and with this latest proposal, I wondered what else they might have in mind down the road," he said. "Now, going forward, I think the boys will be more conscious of the global aspect as well as the core aspect they're concentrating on."
What it all boiled down to was that instead of reaching a firm decision, the committee recommended a system whereby points would be awarded for playing in certain events. And if a player were to avoid the leading ones, he could find himself playing in more than 12 tournaments to amass sufficient points to retain his membership.
But it still has to become Tour policy. Which brings us back to Harrington. "As a superb ambassador for the Tour, Pádraig helped us get the 'Yes' vote in Copenhagen," said O'Grady. "And at this week's committee meeting he spoke very eloquently, bringing a balanced, global perspective to our discussions which will enable me and my staff to draw up the final future regulations."
Which means that when the decision comes, within the next month, it will have a recognisable Harrington stamp about it.