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Fascinating odyssey takes another turn for born entertainer

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'In the wake of Indonesia, Harrington promised himself a really nice Christmas. Among other things, this involved an unprecedented break of more than six weeks from actually playing golf'

'In the wake of Indonesia, Harrington promised himself a really nice Christmas. Among other things, this involved an unprecedented break of more than six weeks from actually playing golf'

Asian Tour via Getty Images

'In the wake of Indonesia, Harrington promised himself a really nice Christmas. Among other things, this involved an unprecedented break of more than six weeks from actually playing golf'

On his way to a Saturday 63 in the Phoenix Open two years ago, Pádraig Harrington took time out on the short 16th to punt American footballs into a notoriously raucous crowd. Last week, from more sedate audiences in Dublin's Gaiety Theatre, there was reassurance of his enduring status as a much-loved national figure.

In truth, the man's a marvel. And against the background of a long-awaited victory in the Indonesian Open, he sets off this morning for Phoenix on a sponsor's invitation, at the start of his 20th season of tournament action.

For those of us involved with the immediacy of sporting endeavour, it's sometimes difficult to appreciate the place our heroes can command in people's hearts. That's what made the three charity shows under the banner of 'An Evening with Pádraig Harrington', so revealing.

The warmth of audience reaction, culminating in standing ovations, made one realise the heartfelt nature of repeated questions in recent years like "What's happened to Pádraig?" or "Do you think Harrington will win another big one?" And you begin to appreciate all the more the innate decency of the man.

In the wake of Indonesia, Harrington promised himself a really nice Christmas. Among other things, this involved an unprecedented break of more than six weeks from actually playing golf.

Along the way, there was the first-time experience of public singing, during the Irish Youth Foundation's annual sports awards dinner. Prompting the observation: "You may think that I'm a pretty confident person. I'm pretty confident when I play golf. And back when I was about 10 years of age I was into all the sports in school. I did everything."

Then came the almost child-like confession: "I never made the school choir. Our family would have been considered quite musical and an older brother won awards at the Feis Ceoil. But having failed to be picked for the choir, I've never sung a note since. Until now."

As it happened, the breakthrough was engineered by cabaret artist, Cole Page, who has similarly ambushed sportsmen like Lee Westwood and Wayne Rooney.

Harrington's verdict? "It's amazing what can happen to young people when support is lacking." Which was highly appropriate in the context of the evening's beneficiaries and something most parents could empathise with.

Another fascinating Harrington situation occurred 10 days ago, when I phoned regarding last week's Sunday Independent feature 'The Secrets of Our Success'. By way of assurance that it wouldn't over-tax him, I suggested we would need no more than about 50 words. On phoning me later that day, his first thought was: "Who's idea was it to keep this to 50 words? They clearly haven't grasped the complexity of what's being asked. We'll need much more than 50 words."

He then proceeded to ask if I was aware that nine out of the last ten Olympic 100-metre sprint champions had been born fourth or fifth in their family: Usain Bolt is an odd one out apparently, being born, he thought, second. Or that 66 per cent of US presidents lost a parent in childhood.

Or that the majority of leading entrepreneurs are dyslexic. And on he went while I chickened out of admitting that the 50 words had been my idea. Not for the first time, I had experienced Harrington's unwitting capacity for making an interviewer feel decidedly inadequate.

Against this background, the simplicity of his Gaiety presentation came as a very pleasant surprise. You could sense the audience engaging with him from the outset, as he mixed self-deprecation with sound mechanics. Like suggesting: "Keep your head still, keep your body still and make a slow backswing are three things which won't help you hit a golf ball." Gentle laughter from the audience assured him he was on welcome ground.

Then came the Harrington method, polished in countless clinics from corporate outings where he is noted as an admirable performer. He offered "Sch", the first three letters of school. S is for the speedy swish of swinging a club, which will determine how far you'll hit the ball. C is for chest which you need to keep down through the shot. And H is for holding your finish. "Get that last one right," he promised, "and you'll improve every swing you make for the rest of your life."

Other quotes from a memorable evening were - "Fast and efficient don't always go together in the golf swing but they do with Rory McIlroy."

"Don't be afraid to hit it in the trees. A guy who hits every fairway and every green will more than likely end up becoming a bad putter." "Short, tricky golf courses help you to score well. If your course is long, practise off the ladies' tees." "If you happen to be short of a few bob and need a new career, sports psychology is the answer."

Harrington made his professional debut on September 28, 1995, in the inaugural Smurfit European Open at The K Club. That was when his great hero, Bernhard Langer, captured the title in a sudden-death play-off with Barry Lane. It was also when Harrington discovered that the box-grooves of the Ping Eye-2 sandwedge which had served him so well in the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl only two weeks previously were illegal on the European Tour.

So, in an 11th-hour panic, he happened to get a legal replacement from Brendan McGovern, the professional at Headfort. As a postscript to that particular episode, Harrington considered using the same Ping club for his season debut in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera CC in February 2010.

At a time when the tournament scene was turned upside down by the mandatory return to V-grooves, Harrington claimed he had found a way around the issue. After testing an old Ping Eye-2 sandwedge with box grooves acquired from a friend, he said: "Because we govern ourselves when we play golf, we have to strenuously stick to the rules. So they must be black and white, which happens to be true in this case. The Ping Eye-2 is legal."

Typically honourable, however, he decided against using a club which would have broken the spirit of the rule. And as recently as last week, he made a point of highlighting the extent to which that rule-change diminished his renowned skill around the greens.

With a current world ranking of 270th and a final placing of 188th on the PGA Tour last season, he heads to Phoenix to kick off a run of five tournaments in a row, which will take him through the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Northern Trust Open, culminating in the Honda Classic at PGA National on February 26 to March 1. And, predictably, he is not short on optimism.

"I've always seen myself as having a great ability to recover when I stumble; to be able to handle playing badly," he said.

"That's been the key to getting through the last few years on tour. Though the win in Indonesia doesn't actually mean anything in the context of my competitive future, the good things I've been working on, especially some good mental stuff, allowed it to happen."

And the importance of the mental stuff cannot be overstated. It explains how an accomplished, two-time Major winner like Martin Kaymer could inflict such pain on himself through a final-round collapse in Abu Dhabi last Sunday.

Only a seriously addled mind could cause a player who had been swinging the club beautifully to suddenly look like a hacker who had lost touch with his competitive reality. I remember Jack Nicklaus playing unbelievably poor bunker recoveries during a first-round 83 in the 1981 Open Championship at Royal St George's.

Professionals will tell you that winning is never easy. Nobody became more aware of this than Harrington, after 29 seconds on tour. The increasing number of admirers, who became his spiritual companions on those travels, are now invited to join him on the latest phase of a fascinating odyssey.

They can be sure of only one outcome: that it will continue to be an absorbing process, entirely unpredictable.

Sunday Indo Sport