Sunday 18 March 2018

A childhood rejection that haunts Padraig Harrington

In his most revealing interview ever, Padraig tells our reporter his thoughts on Dermot Desmond, Tiger Woods, his biggest regret in life, his doggedness, his moods, his marriage to Caroline, the death of his father, and how he can't keep winning Majors every year

Caroline and Padraig Harrington at the Make a Wish Ball in Aviva Stadium. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Caroline and Padraig Harrington at the Make a Wish Ball in Aviva Stadium. Photo: Kieran Harnett
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Perhaps only Padraig Harrington could over-analyse a cup of coffee.

With comic echoes of Estragon and Vladimir debating a certain orange coloured root vegetable in Waiting For Godot ("How's the carrot?" ... "It's a carrot") he turns the humdrum domestic act of making a cup of coffee at his house in County Dublin last week into an existential crisis worthy of Samuel Beckett. "Is making coffee like making whiskey? You should never put water in another man's whiskey? Isn't that what they say?"

Ninety minutes later, interview over, when I wash out my empty coffee cup under the tap in the kitchen sink, the greatest golfer of his generation takes up where he left off. "Now you see, that was a total waste of energy and water, wasn't it?" he laughs. "Because I'll be putting the cup in the dishwater," he says, opening the dishwater.

I joke that he probably tells the pilot flying his private jet to America the most aerodynamically astute routes through the cloud to save on fuel. His laughter echoes around the house. There is just the two of us in this giant mansion. His beautiful wife Caroline, who he married in 1997, is out with their two young kids, Patrick and Ciaran.

Padraig Harrington is one of the most fascinating figures in Irish life, sporting or otherwise. He seems to thrive on his own high-octane intensity. (Yet he exhibits a boy-like charm with it.) You can see why Dermot Desmond said of him: 'He is smart enough to get there but stubborn enough to make the journey long.' Sitting at his dining room table, Padraig recalls that one of his "great regrets in life" was as a 10-year-old in Ballyroan Boys School when he went to the school choir.

The 44-year-old gives the backstory before he begins his boyhood tale. "So, when I was growing up, at 4, 5 or 6 years of age, my oldest brother Tadgh was the number one boy soprano in the country.

Padraig Harrington in action during the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Padraig Harrington in action during the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

"He was that little kid that they brought in to sing Ave Maria at the wedding. He was making money at 13 and 14 singing at weddings and stuff like that."

"My mother is a McNamara," he says of his beloved mum Breda. "The McNamaras have a school of music. So music is in the family. So I went to the school choir at 10. I didn't get in. And I have never sung a note since. I don't sing in the shower. I don't sing in the car. I just do not sing." Because of what happened 34 years ago?

"Because of that one incident," he says, flatly.

"I was 10. I had good cop on, being the youngest of five boys. I realised that if you can't make the school choir, you cannot sing. I have never sung since then. It is one of my great regrets, because I have realised now as an older person that music isn't for other people. It is for the person who's singing. Yes, if you're a professional it is for other people, but in general, I now regret so much not having the ability to know the chorus or a verse of all the singalong songs that you would get at a party in a pub."

Padraig adds that when he comes home and X Factor is on the telly - "not that I watch X Factor" - he has to ask his wife Caroline, 'Are they any good? Can that person sing?' And that is purely because of that one incident," he explains. "And like - I'm a confident person. Unbelievable. They should have stood me in the back of the choir and I would have known no different, and I would enjoy music. It guts me. Just to be able to sing a couple of verses to this song or that song. I don't even sing the national anthem."

It hurts him that much internally? "Oh, yeah. It kills me.

"I'd love to be able to stand up at the Ryder Cup and sing my national anthem. I don't sing it. I have no confidence when it comes to singing. And because of that, I don't know the words." When he hears the music, his anxiety of that traumatic childhood moment is suddenly in control again - like an organism emerging from deep inside Padraig Harrington. He says he went to see U2 in concert in America last year rather than in Dublin because he would find it difficult to enjoy music at an emotional level in Ireland.

The famous wins of Padraig Harrington have, of course, brought many of us to many joyous emotional levels. Being extravagantly gifted, and perhaps by force of sheer, grinding will, he won three Majors: The Open Championship in 2007 and 2008 and the PGA Championship, also in 2008. Some might argue his career was in a bit of a low until he won the Honda Classic in Palm Beach last March. (Others might argue he was the golf revenant coming back to his best.) A week later on the Late Late Show Padraig said that the primary emotion after winning the Honda was one of relief for his wife and family and friends who had to put up with seven years of being asked when is Padraig Harrington going to start winning again.

"Relief for everybody else - not for me," he says. "A lot of people came up to me at the tournament last week," he says of the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, "and said, 'Great week.' I was disgusted. I'm looking at them, going: 'It was a good week but please don't tell me finishing sixth is a great week'."

"A great week for me is winning," he adds. "I am in a completely different reality than what the world is in."

Bullet-proof, Padraig Harrington doesn't possess one iota of doubt that he is not as good now as he was in 2008. "I assume every day I'm playing just as well," he says. "My brother Tadgh texted me the other day: 'Well done. Your game is back to its best'."

"I texted him back: 'Actually, I feel like I played the exact same as I did last year.' So he texted me and says 'I apologise. One completely mad person talking to another completely mad person about golf is insane'."

"It was very perceptive of Tadgh," laughs Padraig. "I'm living it. I don't see what other people see."

Padraig Harrington doesn't listen to the outside world. He listens to his wife, his close circle - and I imagine most acutely, his inner voice . . .

I ask him is he sitting here at the dinner table in the evenings with his wife and two kids thinking about golf shots while his kids are saying, 'Dad, come back!'?

"No. I have tricks to make sure I don't," he answers, before explaining that "the number 1 golden rule - and I would say this to anybody in their life - if you want to be present and get away from the stress of a situation, you need to talk about it for ten minutes. Have a release.

"I didn't realise this was what I used to do. When I was an amateur pro, early doors, when I finished a round of golf, the first thing you do is you ring people," he says.

In particular, he would ring his father and tell him, shot for shot, what happened that day. "I did that up until my father passed away in 2005. There was a period after 2005, I remember it distinctly. Maybe it might have been 2004 because my dad was sick or whatever, but it was only around that time that I really . . ." he pauses. "My wife travelled with me full-time as well. So that was another release at that stage."

He recalls one particular incident or two with his wife that educated him about the inner workings of his complex psyche.

"I believe I am reasonably good at keeping the golf where it should be but I remember going out for dinner at a couple of events. I finished up the golf and you rush out for dinner. You'd be sitting at dinner and the day hasn't gone well. I'd be two hours at dinner - hadn't said a word."

What was that like for his wife?

"This is the point. You'd be coming out of dinner and my wife would have to say, 'What was the story there? You're sitting with my parents and you're acting like a bull there. You're cutting everybody off.' That wasn't me. But I had to try and figure out, 'Why did I do that?' Knowing that I'm in a horrible mood, in a bad mood, and being rude and not nice, whatever. So you're sitting here going [to yourself] 'Why are you doing this?'"

"It was only then, around that time, that I realised that was because I had rushed off the course. I hadn't had that ten minutes to vent."

"What was happening," Padraig continues, "was after the meal then I would have that ten- minute conversation with my wife and I would be fine then. The worst thing a sportsman can do is spend time in your hotel room on your own," he says, "because if you are looking at the four walls you are going to start thinking."

Padraig had more than golf to think about in 2005 when his father Paddy died from oesophageal cancer.

"The hardest thing about losing your father when you are a public figure is people ask you to explain. I have an ability to hit a little white golf ball. How can I explain grief? That was absolutely the hardest thing.

"You know, that people would assume that because I was good at something that I had this magic ability to explain myself when it came to grief. Nobody is prepared for that. So certainly that was very strange, very strange."

Very, very touching, however, is the manner in which he describes his late father. "He was the softest garda ever. I don't think my dad ever served a summons on anybody in his life in Irishtown or Donnybrook. He would be well known for arresting a guy and giving him money to get the bus home or a taxi or whatever. He wasn't cut out to be a garda," says Padraig adding that his dad lost two All-Ireland Finals "and never had a regret."

Padraig grew up in a "competitive" house in Ballyroan - the youngest of five boys. "We were all competing. I can tell you from the age of four going on my holidays down to Cork and Kerry, we'd be playing cards for Refreshers sweets, with my older brothers. You learn pretty quickly. I wanted to compete."

He realises now that his competitive side came more from his mother than his father who was heavily into sports. "But I realise now my mother was harder and tougher - and I mean this in a positive way, mum - than my dad was. My dad was always a bit of an enigma in that sense. I could see him being competitive but there are very few people who could lose two finals and have no regrets. There was always a certain softness to that."

What did Dermot Desmond mean when he said about you - "He is smart enough to get there but stubborn enough to make the journey long"?

"That's a lovely way of saying it, actually. Well, I am quite dogged. That's the first time I've ever heard that quote and obviously I know Dermot very well. So I pride myself from the age if 18 on never having read anything written about me. Something upset me when I was 18. I know that unless I live in North Korea I can't control the media," Padraig who lives in Rathmichael says.

"The best way to control the media in my world is not reading it. So I am very much an individual who does my thing with a close team. I make my own decisions and try not let the outside world effect me as much.

"I will say to you over the last couple of years definitely the outside world has got more in because I get asked more questions. And in many ways I think people are searching for answers. They assume that you go and win three Majors, as I did in 2007 and 2008, and they assume: why aren't you winning all the time? We only have to look at why did Chelsea win the Premiership last year and are so bad this year? There's a perfect example. It just doesn't keep happening. That's nature.

"It is easier to explain with Tiger Woods, say," he continues. "No one would have expected Tiger Woods six or seven years ago to be where he is today. We just assumed that because of the past it is going to follow: a natural progression, you keep winning, but the reality is - golf is a long sport. So we see the downside."

Padraig didn't win more Majors after 2008 and went through, by his lofty standards, a bit of a fall in form. Trying to penetrate Padraig's enigmatic exterior, I ask him did that alleged 'dip' effect him psychologically?

"If you look at all the golfers over the years," he answers, "anybody who has won Majors will think, if you get to a peak, that you're generally going to come down off it. Now some guys will get to another peak - say the likes of Rory [McIlroy] is a good example."

"When Rory started playing golf he believed he's going to win. In his head, I don't know where it's going to stop. But maybe it's 18 Majors, the Holy Grail. Maybe it's 10. But somewhere, that's deep-rooted in him. Somewhere when it hits that number, it's going to get hard for him the next day when he gets up, in terms of the adrenalin, the excitement, the nerves, the buzz. We all have a number in our head."

I ask Padraig Harrington what is his number in his head. "I don't know. I far exceeded with three. So I'm saying if I started out with six in my head maybe this peak would have kept going until I got to six."

The mercurial Dubliner is on a rare day off. He had to get his passport photograph done. He brought his 12-year-old son Patrick to the dentist. (He also has an eight-year-old son Ciaran.) He is home for three weeks then he is again - off around the world to play golf. What's it like when he is saying goodbye to his wife and two kids?

"They know," he says. "That's all they've ever known. They would have travelled full time up until school age. So now it is more me going away and them staying at home. They're just used to it. They wouldn't even bat an eye with me."

Do they want to follow in their daddy's golf-shoes? "No. They certainly haven't shown any signs of it, anyway," he smiles. (My connection with Padraig is that I worked with the Irish Youth Foundation last year on a project for Independent News & Media; Padraig is the Patron of the annual IYF Excellence in Sport Awards.) I throw a JP McManus quote about Harrington at him: 'Sometimes when you don't have the answer you have to move on to a question that you do have the answer to.'

"It's a very good quote. And it is a valid point."

You sound like a riddle wrapped in an enigma, I say.

"That's to everybody else who doesn't have all the information. You see, I could turn on a soccer match and I'm going 'Why isn't the manager playing X? Why is he playing this guy? He's rubbish.' That's my opinion. We all have opinions. We all judge. And in many ways, I'm judged.

"But nobody knows what is going on in my head. Nobody knows the full story. I'm the only person. And a couple of people around me that know what's happening."

When I ask him does he enjoy it, he says: "Love it." It doesn't bother him that the media have often described him as tortured, obsessional, intense. But you were obsessional about sport from an early age, I say to him.

"Yeah, but I love it. I love that. I love the idea. I'm fascinated by it. I can't get over it. Look, it's like - there's a tournament in the states, Wyndham . . . " he begins.

Padraig recalls one evening at the aforesaid Wyndham Championship in glorious Greensboro, in North Carolina. Instead of enjoying the unimaginable beauty of the rolling countryside in front of him Padraig's mind was locked onto something else instead.

"You drive up to the clubhouse and they valet park the car. They have 40 spots and then they have to park the cars off-site. So it can take a few minutes for your car to come up. I'm always standing there looking over at the 40 cars parked there and I'm thinking: 'If they park the cars tail-to-toe it means they save 18 inches per car. So basically if both passenger doors are parked together - nobody is opening a passenger door on a valet car.

"So that gives the space on the driver's side. So they only need space on one side. And if they park all the cars the same way the driver has to have the same room all the way across. You might get 4 more cars into your 40 spots."

Is that what you were thinking when you were looking out over this beautiful view of a golf course? "That's what I'm thinking all the time."

You sound like Jack Nicholson's character in As Good As It Gets, I joke.

"I don't have OCD in any shape or form. I'm incredibly the opposite in so many things.

I procrastinate, terribly, when it is not important. Phone-calls. Anything. I'm just like everybody else."

Until he gets on the golf course, that is. . .

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