Tuesday 16 January 2018

Harrington, like Woods, is justified by past glory

The Dubliner is not fazed by criticism of his Ryder Cup selection, says Dermot Gilleece

I n the wake of a dispiriting departure from the FedEx Cup in the US last weekend, Padraig Harrington still sees no cause to defend his selection as a wild card in Europe's Ryder Cup team. But he is prepared for a rough ride at Celtic Manor next month if he fails to justify the confidence placed in him by skipper Colin Montgomerie.

With the finalising of the US team, Harrington acknowledges what he views as a flattering parallel between himself and Tiger Woods, who was named as one of US captain Corey Pavin's four wild cards.

"There's no doubt that I was picked purely on past experience and what I can bring to the team," he admitted. "As for Tiger: obviously it's nice for me to be considered in the same breath as the world number one. Whatever way you link us, he has undoubtedly been picked on his past good play and his potential for good play going forward."

The Dubliner, who was 39 on August 31, returned home after missing the half-way cut in the Deutsche Bank Championship in the US last Saturday, pushing him outside the top-70 qualifiers for the third FedEx event in Chicago this weekend. Conscious of the need for competitive action between now and the Ryder Cup on October 1, he will play in the Vivendi Cup the previous week, and not the Irish PGA Championship at Seapoint.

Having replaced the Seve Trophy as a biennial match between Britain and Ireland and Continental Europe, the Vivendi has a changed, pro-am format in its latest incarnation. Over two courses at Golf de Joyenval in Paris and for a prize fund of €1.225m, each professional will play with an amateur partner -- in Harrington's case, his brother Fergal -- on the Thursday and Friday. Then, individual professional scores will determine a half-way cut after which the pros will play 36 holes on their own.

"The public see only disappointing recent form when they look at me, but you're only a win away from being a hero," he went on. "I'm also aware that while the hype surrounding the wild cards has died down for the most part, it will definitely resurface when the Ryder Cup gets under way. There's no doubt that having received a pick I will be under additional pressure to justify it."

When I suggested his own selection over Paul Casey, for instance, had prompted outrage in sections of the British media, Harrington made the quiet, measured reply: "They're obviously selling to their audience. It doesn't register as controversial with me. There were five players for three spots which meant two people were going to be left out.

"At the end of the day, anyone who was picked could comfortably justify himself. And anybody who wasn't picked could also comfortably justify why they should have been picked. It was never going to be clearcut. There were different reasons for picking each individual player. And if Justin Rose should win the FedEx Cup, he will probably be Player of the Year in the United States. Think about that. And he not making the Ryder Cup.

"Paul Casey is in the world's top 10. A good matchplayer and he doesn't make the Ryder Cup. You could easily justify him being in there but, unfortunately for Paul, that's the way these things go. The fact is that myself, Luke Donald and Edoardo Molinari also deserved to be picked and there wasn't room for everybody."

Meanwhile, returning to renewed debate as to Woods's commitment to the Ryder Cup, it is worth remembering his baptism in the competition. This came at Valderrama in 1997, five months after he had captured the Masters by 12 strokes.

Imagine the build-up he got from enthusiastic colleagues, who promised the 21-year-old the greatest experience of his young golfing life. And what happened? By the time the last putt sank for a European victory on the Sunday afternoon, he was reduced to tears.

The previous morning, when he sent a putt across the green on the long 17th ruinously into the water in fourball partnership with Mark O'Meara, Woods's putting had become a source of deep concern. In normal circumstances, he would have gone straight to his father for help, but Earl Woods wasn't there.

When the PGA of America declined to include him in the official party, Woods Snr decided not to travel. And when Tiger phoned him on the Saturday at their home in Cypress, California, he was playing golf with friends. His wife, Kultida, left a message that he was to phone their son urgently, but because of the nine-hour time difference, it was the middle of the night in Spain when the call came.

As it happened, the Spanish operator in the US team's San Roque hotel refused to put the call through on the grounds that the player was sleeping and shouldn't be disturbed. When Earl rang a second time, at 7.0am Spanish time, the players had already left for Valderrama.

The upshot was that father and son never made contact and after a shock, 4&2 singles defeat by Costantino Rocca, an emotional Tiger cried tears of frustration. "It was my fault," Earl Woods later claimed. "I should have been there to support Tiger when he needed me."

Two years later, there was the bitterness of Brookline where the American team notoriously trampled over the 17th green. Then in 2002, Woods found himself in a meaningless match at number 12 in the singles order, by which stage Europe were virtually certain of victory. This was followed by the farce of Oakland Hills and his partnership with arch-rival Phil Mickelson.

So, by the time he made his last Ryder Cup appearance at The K Club in 2006, he could be forgiven for taking a decidedly jaundiced view of the entire exercise. Yet there wasn't the slightest chance Pavin would overlook him, not least for the huge impact his absence would have on TV viewing figures in the US.

"I would certainly have picked him," said Harrington. "It would have been crazy not to consider Tiger among the 12 best players in the US. Once you get beyond himself, Phil Mickelson and Lee Westwood, there's no obvious challenger for the position of number one in the world right now. Their team will be stronger with him in it and I can imagine him having the mindset of putting in a very productive week at Celtic Manor."

Harrington went on to reveal recent chats he had with Monty, in which certain expectations were outlined and certain undertakings given, even before the wild cards were finalised. "I'm definitely up for the matches," he said. "I'm keen to put up a strong performance that week, both on the golf course and in the team room.

"In the past, I tended to do my own thing for the week, trying to get the best out of me. However, having talked with Monty I will certainly be conscious of fulfilling a greater role in helping off the golf course, being more proactive in offering advice, rather than sitting back and waiting for people to come to me. With six rookies in our team, there's a certain responsibility on me to pass on the experience I've gained over the years. I can also offer ideas to Monty or the vice-captains."

And what of filling Monty's role as a leader on the course, something he declined to do two years ago in Valhalla? "The guy who leads the team will probably be somebody who is in great form that week," he replied. "Yes, I could possibly do the job but I would want to show a great bit of form heading to Celtic Manor, or in the practice rounds."

Even at this stage, team-room strategy is shaping into a crucial aspect of Montgomerie's captaincy. It is clear that Harrington is being given a prominent role in this area. And after recent disappointments, he is determined to complement such contributions with serious form on the golf course. "I'm very optimistic I can be on top of my game," he said.

All the while, there will be an awareness of an American side which suddenly appears a lot more formidable than its nucleus would have indicated earlier this year.

"The bookies seem to want to make Europe big favourites, but it would be naive to imagine the US not fielding a strong team," said Harrington in a comment reminiscent of European captain, Bernard Gallacher, after defeats in 1991 and 1993.

"When the Americans apply themselves to winning something as seriously as they have with the Ryder Cup," said Gallacher, "you have to cope with a very, very ruthless animal." Which is how Monty, from his experience of those years, will expect them to go about defending the trophy.

Sunday Independent

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