Rio 2016: Padraig Harrington has message for stay-away golfers
Harrington savouring the experience as golf returns after 112 years off the Olympic schedule
Published 11/08/2016 | 02:30
The sky over Rio hissed like a fisherman's reel yesterday, drenching Marapendi Natural Reserve where, today, Padraig Harrington goes after a personal dream that transcends commerce.
The Olympic golf course is flat as a table and, under siege from the Heavens, it looked stark and featureless, a giant green eiderdown flanked by indifferent high-rises. The scaffold camera towers and rippling marquees might have been parachuted down from an Irish Open landscape, but the practice galleries could have been transported in on a single shuttle bus.
Harrington knows the prevailing soundtrack accompanying golf's return to Olympia. The ultimate capitalist game is here without many of its superstars and coming to terms with feeling like an awkward gatecrasher.
Yet, he has a temperament averse to cynicism and the sincerity with which he talks of being an Olympian can feel like a saving grace.
Yesterday, he remained firm in his conviction that those who chose to stay away will come to regret that decision.
"I sense that the players at home are pretty quiet on social media, that maybe some of them would like to be here now," he smiled. "And there's no doubt that they're missing out, that's for sure.
"You just don't know where this is going to lead, where the game will be in four or eight years' time, whether golf will even be in the Olympics in eight years' time. It may be a once in a lifetime opportunity for a lot of people."
Harrington gets his Olympic challenge under way today (11.41am Irish time) in the company of Matteo Manassero of Italy and New Zealander Danny Lee while Irish colleague, Seamus Power tees off (2.47pm Irish time) alongside India's SSP Chawrasia and Wen Tan Ling of Taipei.
Rory McIlroy will not compete in Rio
The third oldest man in the field, Harrington was part of the delegation presenting golf's case to the IOC in 2009, a time when his own game was in such robust good health he could have been forgiven for believing he was canvassing with an element of self-interest. He has since described himself as "the runt in the litter", qualifying to play here only because Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell did not come.
"I thought absolutely I would be here, but that's the nature of sport" he reflected. "When you're at the top of your game, you don't believe it's ever going to change. You think it's going to last forever.
"That will be interesting for the athletes who turned down coming here this time. Some of them might not get the opportunity again. You'd be surprised how it does change. For me, this is clearly pretty much the opportunity of a lifetime. Logically will I get another chance in 2020? Probably not.
"So this is an awfully big deal that I got my opportunity and I'm keen to take it."
The Olympic tournament, restricted to 60 professionals, will be played as an orthodox 72-hole individual stroke play competition and the Olympic experience was yesterday drawing bouquets from some of the bigger names here. Open champion, Henrik Stenson, described it as "a highlight" whilst a "humbled" Martin Kaymer called it the best week of his life.
Harrington believes they are speaking from the heart.
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"Everybody here is loving it," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen as much interaction between the players. In a Major, there wouldn't be interaction between players at all. Here, everybody's talking about what they've seen, what they went to, what athlete they saw.
"Like I probably got to the Olympic village say 8.0am Monday. Paul McGinley was there to meet me and we went straight down to the dining hall, 300 metres-long of people.
"You think you're going there for a quick breakfast and an hour and a half afterwards you're still sitting there, looking at people. People who are relaxed, people who are stressed. The confidence levels of people and how they carry themselves, the ego, that's what I'm interested in. Who's strutting around and believing in themselves?
"Martin (Kaymer) says he's humbled. But, if you want to play good golf, you've got to go around thinking you're the man and not to be shying away from that."
Harrington sees himself as a viable contender here on a golf course that has no rough and on which the last three holes are expected to decant abundant drama, particularly the driveable par-four 16th which may well invite the odd headstrong gambler into trouble.
He has been surprised by the number of people stopping him for selfies in the village, reflecting with a grin, "I would have thought that most people would have looked at me and said 'I wonder what he's coaching?'"
After Sunday's final round, he will stay around for a week of Olympic spectating with family and believes that there may be valuable lessons for golf to take from Rio.
"Golfers travel five star all the time, we stay in five-star hotels," he said. "It's pretty nice at the top. I will say, when I was at the very top, whenever I went to a tournament, I wouldn't be far off the penthouse. At this stage, I'm probably on the third or fourth floor (laughing).
"I can see the difference, but it's still pretty nice where I am. We have to appreciate that.
"I always say to young golfers who are turning pro, you know you can travel the world on a shoestring because, nearly everywhere you go, you'll be looked after. But you read and see the stories here of people who had to fund-raise to come here, which is incredible.
"Look, it's massive for golf being in the Olympics. The legitimacy that it brings to the sport when you go to a country like China, where often we hear they're not giving licences to build any more golf courses. When you can say 'well it's an Olympic sport now!', that has got to help when it goes to Government level.
"You know we have very little penetration into Eastern Europe too. It's seen as a very exclusive game. I think anyone thinking that golf being in the Olympics doesn't make a difference are living in a very Westernised world where golf is already a big sport."
With serious question-marks hanging over golf's Olympic position beyond Tokyo, Harrington was asked what outcome here now might serve that crusade best.
"Me winning!" he responded with a smile. "For me, that's the best thing that can happen. It is fascinating some of the negativity.
"Somebody was telling me there was a big story about an infestation of alligators on the 10th. I think there's an alligator in the lake.
"Like, there wouldn't be a golf course in Florida that wouldn't have a lot of alligators. How could that be a headline back in the 'States?
"No, best case scenario? Padraig Harrington finishing eagle, birdie, eagle to win it outright."