Harrington bursting with pride as he hits out at stay-away 'sheep'
Published 12/08/2016 | 02:30
It was in Scotland two years ago, his game so ragged he could have been playing with a bag of broomhandles, that Padraig Harrington first publicised his Olympic dream.
Announcing Rio as his goal, his words at the Albert Dunhill Links tournament met the calculated indifference of a golf media for whom he might as well have been promising to go after the promiscuous mosquito population here with a crossbow.
Back then, Harrington needed either to work his way into the world's top 15 by the deadline for Olympic qualification or get himself here as one of Ireland's two highest-ranked golfers. He was, at the time, outside the world's top 300.
In other words, talking up the things he'd do with a lottery win, despite not having the conspicuous price of a ticket.
But Harrington's numbers came up because so many chose to ignore golf's entreaties to covet the Olympics as a fifth Major.
And, having opened with a one-under-par 70 ( seven shots off the blistering pace set by Australia's Marcus Fraser) on a course cut out of Marapendi Natural Reserve, he came off smiling the smile of someone who believes there will be, in time, a major wind-shift in how golf's superstars regard a visit to Olympia.
Harrington's compulsively upbeat spirit seemed perfectly reconciled with the energy unspooling here. The Irishman has been swinging gentle punches here at those who turned their collars up against these Games and he was still windmilling in their direction yesterday as an interesting tournament threatened to break out from under the controversy.
Asked if some players had, perhaps, "mis-read the situation", he did not equivocate.
"I think completely, yeah," he reflected. "There's a few conscientious objectors who just don't see why professional golf is in the Olympics. If that's your opinion, that's fine.
"I would have to say there was a lot of sheep in this decision. They kept just following each other out the door. It's hard to believe. It's a perfect time in the schedule. The four Majors are over, what else is there to play for this year?
"I just don't understand what anyone else thinks they're playing for. There is no point in saving yourself for anything else."
When somone mentioned the Ryder Cup, Harrington's eyebrows arched with incredulity.
"The Ryder Cup is two months away, surely this is not affecting it. If you want to rest, there's another eight weeks to rest. You don't have to rest the week of the Olympics."
He played beautifully at times yesterday. The damage of a missed four-foot par putt on the first was quickly undone by a birdie at the fifth and two more birdies just after the turn got him to within three of the lead.
But the low score his approach play promised never quite materialised, a trifling irritation on a day he will, palpably, treasure for the rest of his life.
Harrington revealed that he has been receiving daily texts from Melbourne 1956 gold medallist Ronnie Delany, whose story has been a long-standing reference point for his desire to play an Olympics.
"This is a man I would have seen at sports awards for 20 years and I'd go 'I want to be like that!'" said Harrington. "I mightn't have a gold medal, but at least I'm an Olympic athlete."
The three-time Major winner seems faintly intoxicated with the energy here, endlessly accentuating the sense of difference between this and a conventional Tour event.
"Standing on the first tee was as daunting as it was when I played my first Major," he revealed.
"I was very nervous. I said it to the guys walking off. 'Now we're Olympians and no-one can take that away from us.' When you think about it, most weeks you have 156 guys playing and 155 losers. This week, it's 60 guys playing and we're all winners.
"The players are enjoying this a lot more than any event they've played in. There really is a fell-good factor around the locker-room. Everyone is here because they want to be."
Harrington's Irish team-mate Seamus Power, shot a commendable 71 in a stiffening afternoon breeze that team captain Paul McGinley, reckoned might have made the course as much as three strokes more difficult.
The US-based Waterford player, who will have a full PGA Tour card next season, sees this week as a precious opportunity to get himself a bigger profile.
He has been to see the Irish boxers this week and sympathises with the brutally condensed nature of their Olympic programme.
"They get nine minutes after four years' work, I get four days after five weeks' notice!" he smiled.
McGinley believes that if Harrington can stay in touch with the leaders until Sunday, he will have a real shot at claiming an Irish gold.
"If he's within four shots, I give him a big chance" said McGinley.
And the mosquitoes of this reclaimed swamp who've wreaked such terror across the continents?
"You know what, I haven't seen one" shrugged Harrington. "Actually no, to tell the truth, I saw one in my room and he did not come to a good end. That's it.
"I didn't even have mosquito spray on today. You guys? Did anybody?"