Saturday 26 May 2018

Harrington deserves some luck from sporting gods

Three-time Major winner hasn't become bitter despite his dramatic slip down world ladder

Padraig Harrington missed the cut in Houston to end his Masters hopes
Padraig Harrington missed the cut in Houston to end his Masters hopes
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Padraig Harrington comes across as the perpetual castaway who catches sight of land, but can't quite figure out how to get there.

On Wednesday, he was typically forthright in an RTE interview about the prevailing struggle that – this weekend – has him watching Augusta National on TV at home in Rathmichael. Listening, you could want only good things for the man. Harrington may be lost for answers with his golf game, but he'll never mistake an unplayable lie for a grim hospital diagnosis.

Professional sport is full of angry people, resentments bubbling up inside of them like toxic liquids from an old mine pit.

But Harrington doesn't go there. He still remembers to smile when people applaud him onto a green and, when someone asks a question, he does the now subversive thing of supplying an honest answer.

I can't think of anyone I would prefer to see fitted with a green blazer in the Butler Cabin on a Masters Sunday, but every botched round now seems to drag him further from a solution.

The popular view is that he has simply over-tinkered with and over-analysed a game that carried him to three Major wins and a world ranking high of third, just behind Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in '08. Padraig himself doesn't entirely deny it.

CHANGES

"I made major changes before I won those Majors, even between the Majors," he said on the 'Second Captains' show. "It's just who I am."

He has, thus, become the ultimate paradox of Irish sport.

A voracious reader of self-help books whose motivational talks are lauded by business leaders as well as the coaches of many of the country's leading sports teams, Harrington might as well have a doctorate in the cold logic of elite performance.

But his own case study still leaves him stumped. Every day now dawns as a 45-foot downhill putt, with a two-way break on a green islanded by crocodile infested water.

In Houston last weekend, a bright start quickly dissipated, leaving him floundering vainly to make a halfway cut that would, at least, have suspended his axing from this year's Masters. "When it comes to the cut-line," he reflected "I seem to be doing everything I can to fall just the wrong side of it."

He has, thus, become easy to mock and caricature.

The very day of the announcement that belly-putters would be banned, he started using one. He took to wearing glasses, despite laser surgery having given him 20/20 vision and then, after discarding them midway through a round, still wore them to his subsequent press conference.

Padraig's obsession with the biomechanics of golf, his fixation with technical progression and almost slavish devotion to the practice-ground (he still does 10 hours a day, every day between tournaments) all create the impression of someone maybe suffering some kind of information overload.

But maybe we miss the point that, even at its best, Harrington's game never flowed with the wild, easy power of, say, Rory McIlroy's. It was instead an essay in coercion and manipulation of a swing honed against the natural troubles familiar on the hillside of Stackstown Golf Club.

In other words, hard work was the very thing that once got him so close to the summit of world golf. Now it has become the voice that mocks him.

Yet, he is cheerful and – outwardly at least – hopeful for the future. Some may see skewed logic in his reminder this week that, prior to '06, he had finished runner-up in 29 tournaments. A statistic suggesting he'd come to represent the cliché of the 'choker'.

Since '06, Harrington maintains he has been far more inclined to avail of a challenging position, albeit his only real chance of winning since Oakland Hills in '08 was at the 2012 PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda. That said, it was a chance he duly took.

Just now, his phlegmatic view on professional pain brings to mind Arnold Palmer's response many years ago to shooting 12 at one hole in the Los Angeles Open.

"What happened?" asked a journalist.

"I missed a short putt for an 11," smiled Arnie.

Harrington admitted this week that his career is no longer propelled by fear, that he has stopped chasing the illusory "secret" of perfect golf and that, maybe above all, the quality his game now lacks more than any other is innocence.

He came across as likeable and dignified and, routinely, self-deprecating.

There was, he smiled, an old golf tip that counsels against holding the club any tighter than you would hold a newborn budgie. In Houston last week? "Well I would have strangled it," he grinned.

There was no air of self-importance, no sense of a man imagining his struggles to be anything but what they are. The gentle counterpoints to a life of comfort and privilege.

If the gods of the game have a conscience, they surely won't forget him.

Ruby and fellow jockeys set benchmark for toughness

RUBY WALSH'S confirmation this week that he is "on track" to return to the saddle at Punchestown, frankly, thieves the breath away.

There were times on Gold Cup Friday that you got the eerie feel of Cheltenham being under siege from sinister spirits, one wretched mishap seeming to follow another. Walsh's fall on Abbyssial in the Triumph Hurdle was one of those horrible, blood-curdling incidents that leave you waiting to see a jockey get to his feet.

The entire field came rolling over Ruby like a giant, rainbow-coloured surf, yet – incredibly – he 'escaped' with just a compound fracture of his humerus and dislocated shoulder.

In any other field, those would constitute season-ending injuries.

In National Hunt, they represent a six-week inconvenience. When it comes to toughness, the rest of sport is just tea and crumpets.

United players let the side down at memorial

CLASSY touch by David Moyes on Tuesday in bringing the Manchester United players to a memorial for the Munich air disaster just 24 hours before their Champions League game against Bayern.

The squad gathered around a commemoration stone on the site of the old Munich-Riem airfield, an area now named 'Manchesterplatz', where 23 people died in that tragedy of '58.

Just a pity that so many of the United players didn't see fit to take their hands from their pockets in that quiet moment of contemplation for those lost.

In an image circulated to the football world, only Nemanja Vidic seemed conscious of the need to respect the moment with more than their mere presence.

Bad enough for Moyes having to manage an under-achieving group, he surely shouldn't have to parent them too.

Irish Independent

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