Thursday 15 November 2018

Ambition that refuses to burn out

Darren Clarke
Darren Clarke
Padraig Harrington

Karl MacGinty

IT'S tempting to imagine Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke as lead characters in a grim sporting version of 'Waiting for Godot'.

They are, after all, two middle-aged golfers, who have known far better times on Tour, marooned in a metaphorical wasteland.

Harrington's recent travails on the course might not seem out of place in the theatre of the absurd... it has been exasperating to watch this great champion play sublimely in stretches but crumple on the cusp of achievement.

Making the cut, something he used to achieve with almost unerring regularity several years ago, has become a trial for the Dubliner... though he survived two at The Valspar Championship last weekend, on both occasions it was not without drama.

Events this year have made Fridays especially fraught for the three-time Major winner.

After finishing fifth at the Volvo Champions, where a limited field played all four rounds, Harrington wrote on his website: "It's funny how pro golfers expend so much time and effort worrying about cuts but it is a big factor in our heads."

The following week in Abu Dhabi, he missed out by one tantalising stroke, despite "playing well enough to make it". Then in Phoenix, Harrington three-putted the last on Friday to once again miss out by a shot.

He'd make the 54-hole cut at the AT&T Pro-Am in Pebble Beach, even soaring as high as second place on Saturday. Yet after playing his first 10 holes at Monterey Peninsula that day in four-under, Harrington plummeted out of contention for his first US or European Tour win in 66 months as he haemorrhaged six shots in the next three.

At Northern Trust, he made two bogeys in the final three holes on Friday, including a three-putt from nine feet at 17, and stumbled out of the tournament.

Honda was even more frustrating. A penalty when his ball moved in the rough at nine, his last, proved pivotal, suggesting that fate was conspiring against the Irishman.

Last Friday and Saturday was not without drama as Harrington, after playing nicely early on, struggled down the stretch, albeit in the 'Snake Pit', the Copperhead's notoriously treacherous three-hole finishing stretch.

A couple of slips at 16 and 17 on Friday, for example, put Harrington two beyond early projections of the cut, though, in fairness, a sweet birdie at the last later would prove critical as the mark moved out.

On Saturday, he looked like the Major champion of old as he completed a hat-trick of birdies at 13, 14 and 15 only to hand it all back with a bogey, double-bogey finish, including a missed putt from inside five feet at 18 to slip, albeit temporarily, outside the second cut line.

Harrington these days appears to be surrounded by an aura of inevitability, as has Clarke since his victory at the 2011 British Open championship in Sandwich.

Yet the essential difference between these two golfers and Samuel Beckett's hapless heroes, Vladimir and Estragon, is that Harrington and Clarke, however much they might appear to be victims of circumstance, remain the authors of their own destiny.

Incidentally, Beckett was an accomplished all-round sportsman and a keen golfer. He's the only Nobel laureate to gain mention in the Wisden Almanack, the bible of cricket, while Beckett was a member of Carrickmines and Foxrock golf clubs, played off a single figure handicap in his youth and represented Dublin University in the Barton Cup.

Were he alive, he'd recognise Harrington as a fighter and certainly not a fatalist. The Dubliner has always been very much in command of his own career and, no matter how grim or frustrating his struggle, especially with his once reliable putter, this 42-year-old always comes up smiling.

Harrington will tee it up at this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, next week's Valero Texas Open and then the Shell Houston Open convinced the victory he needs to qualify for next month's Masters is within his reach.

Meanwhile, Clarke's shedding of more than 40 pounds and the remarkable reshaping of his physique in recent months heavily underscores his determination, at age 45, to exert control over his environment and squeeze every last drop out of his career.

Having overcome his recent chest muscle injury, Clarke's confidence was reinforced by a satisfying ball-striking performance at Copperhead.

While golfers in their 20s have dominated recently on the PGA Tour, John Senden's Valspar victory last Sunday, the 42-year-old Aussie's first in eight years in the PGA Tour, shows that age need not be an issue for golfers of Harrington's or even Clarke's vintage as long as ambition burns inside them.

Irish Independent

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