Sunday 17 December 2017

Harrington may yet meet Woods in Ryder battle

Both are struggling to clinch Ryder Cup spots but they will get there, writes Dermot Gilleece

In typically forthright fashion, David Feherty declared there was "nothing wrong" with the golf swing. The player's problems were essentially mental.

Though the CBS television analyst happened to be addressing the shocking decline of Tiger Woods, he could just as easily have been referring to the displays this year of Pádraig Harrington in the major championships. As it happened, they parted ways at the halfway point of the PGA in which Woods made the cut and Harrington didn't, after a double bogey on the last.

Given their starkly contrasting personalities, it was especially interesting to find rich emphasis here last week on how much they have in common in matters golfing. Particularly where the Ryder Cup is concerned. Both are on the fringe of automatic selection for their respective teams yet seem certain to be depending on a wild card to launch them into battle at Celtic Manor. And both are presenting their captains with serious headaches.

The Woods situation led to an extraordinary outburst after a press conference here last Wednesday, when Corey Pavin was accused by the Golf Channel's Jim Gray of being a liar. Having earlier broadcast that Pavin had told him he would select Woods on his team, Gray heard the US skipper publicly deny any such disclosure as a misinterpretation of what was actually said.

By way of official response, the PGA of America told me: "Corey and Jim have said all that needs to be said about this. We spoke to both Corey and the Golf Channel and this issue is behind us. Corey is focusing on playing the PGA Championship and the Golf Channel is focusing on covering the PGA Championship."

But it goes way beyond bruised egos to a subject very close to American hearts. Money. There has been a dramatic 17 per cent decline in ratings this year of Sunday golf telecasts in the US. Even when Stuart Appleby recorded the fifth 59 on tour at The Greenbrier on August 1, only 1.7 million viewers bothered to watch. It was as if the public were saying what good is a 59 if Woods is not in contention.

This certainly seemed to be the case in the Open Championship last month which had a US audience 46 per cent down on the previous year, when Stewart Cink beat fellow American Tom Watson in a play-off for the title.

As the Wall Street Journal reported: "With Mr Woods' struggles, the rise of the no-names can be especially hard on the major events, which draw more casual viewers and have more to lose."

Translate this to the Ryder Cup and it's clear that Woods' presence at Celtic Manor would be a significant boost to ratings, notwithstanding his relatively modest record in the event. And it's equally clear that Pavin would find it difficult to diminish the world's number one by omitting him from the side, however badly he might be playing.

Feherty is convinced it's all in the mind. "There's nothing wrong with Tiger Woods' golf swing and there hasn't been anything wrong with it since he was on the Mike Douglas Show at two years old," he said. "His problems are mental right now. This is the most demoralising stretch of his career. He's more worried about what might happen instead of what is happening. For the first time he sees weakness in himself and strength in others."

At the risk of sounding perverse, I welcome his obvious torment, if only for the fact that it highlights his humanity. Against the long-time image of a cold, ruthless golfing machine who crushed everything in his path, his mental suffering reflects a clear sense of guilt at what he has brought upon himself and those who care about him.

Either way, it is light years removed from how his father, Earl Woods, saw the building of a champion. "I never wanted to do anything that would hurt Tiger's confidence," he said. "I wanted to build a mindset of domination."

Still, I believe Pavin will give him a wild card on September 7, just as Colin Montgomerie is set to do with Harrington when the European team is announced at the end of the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles on Sunday, August 29.

In the meantime, Woods has been working here with Canadian coach, Sean Foley, and appears likely to choose him as a successor to Hank Haney, from whom he split last May. I understand Foley has made clear, however, that he wishes to maintain his working relationship with current clients who include last week's Firestone winner, Hunter Mahan, along with Sean O'Hair and Justin Rose. For once, a coach is dictating terms to the Great One.

Harrington, meanwhile, has been talking of "a little lack of trust" in his game, which he admits is "totally mental." He also made the point: "Playing well in the Ryder Cup is very important."

While I have no doubt he respects the event, not least for what it represents to the European Tour, I believe the Ryder Cup is not nearly as important to Harrington as it was prior to his major championship victories. Clearly, he revelled in his debut at Brookline in 1999 and there were memorable contributions at The Belfry in 2002 and at Oakland Hills two years later, when he formed a splendid partnership with Montgomerie.

In the last two stagings, however, he had contributed the remarkably meagre total of a half-point in each. A definite change in attitude was apparent at Valhalla where, having declined the role of team leader in succession to Montgomerie, he welcomed skipper Nick Faldo's approach of letting each player do their own thing during the practice days.

For Montgomerie, the Ryder Cup was very special. Recalling the winning putt he sank in 2004, he said: "That was my major moment." Experiences of the real thing, however, have made Harrington far more single-minded, to the extent of being a loner for whom the Ryder Cup is now probably a distraction.

There was also a hint of player-power regarding the involvement of himself and fellow wild card candidates such as Paul Casey and Justin Rose in The Barclays, a FedEx Cup event which happens to clash with Gleneagles. From a position early this year when aspiring wild cards were warned they would miss Gleneagles at their peril, Montgomerie's attitude has since softened markedly.

"I accept that the performances of certain players have given them the opportunity to do very well within this FedEx series," said the captain. "I believe it's a big reason why the American team did so well at Valhalla two years ago in that it kept them playing through the six-week gap between the US PGA and The Ryder Cup. So if it's helping the Americans, why shouldn't it help us as well?" A sentiment any politician would be proud of.

When the American wild cards are announced, I expect Woods to be in the side against a European team which, by that stage, will almost certainly include Harrington. Who knows, they might even play against each other at Celtic Manor. In the meantime, the nature of their journey there has lent a fascinating dimension to an often tiresome process.

Sunday Independent

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