Sunday 18 March 2018

Harrington turns focus to Ryder Cup bid as struggling Rory keeps cool

Karl MacGinty

RENO, Nevada, prides itself on being the 'biggest little city in America', but it will be at the centre of Padraig Harrington's universe next Thursday week when the Irishman resumes his desperate battle to win a place at September's Ryder Cup in Chicago.

While the attention of world golf will focus on next week's $8.5m Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, Harrington confirmed: "It's the Reno-Tahoe Open for me."

Despite a disappointing final round of three-over-par 73 at Lytham, which sent Harrington tumbling into a share of 39th place at the British Open on five-over-par, recent green shoots of recovery in his game will help establish the Dubliner among the favourites in the $3m PGA Tour stop in Reno and the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island the following week.

Harrington is ineligible for Firestone, the fourth successive World Golf Championship he'll miss since his record 12-year unbroken run at these elite events ended at last November's HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

This is the inevitable consequence of several bleak years since the Dubliner won the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills in 2008; as Harrington lifted his third Major title in 13 months that August, few would have imagined the long drought which lay ahead of him on the US and European Tours.

The 40-year-old's battle to restore his game to former glories certainly makes the recent travails of Rory McIlroy appear like little more than a blip on the radar.

However, one suspects that McIlroy, the most naturally gifted young player in golf, has never before had so much cause to question his instincts or his silk-smooth swing, making his recent slump feel a lot more disconcerting for the 23-year-old.

His gloomy performance over the weekend at the US Masters, that missed cut in the US Open at Olympic and McIlroy's failure to build on a decent first-round 67 at Lytham stood in such dark contrast to last summer's record-shattering success at Congressional that it generated a whirlwind of media speculation and pressure.

McIlroy finished in a share of 60th place on eight-over at the British Open after a final-round 73 in which any remaining fight might have been sucked out of him as he dropped four shots in a dreadful three-hole stretch through four yesterday, including a double-bogey six at three.

Yet the youngster battled on, birdies at 13 and 15 representing fair reward for some decent golf. A frustrating bogey five at 16, via deep fairway rough and a greenside bunker, didn't help. Still, it would have been nice to see McIlroy offer some acknowledgement to calls of support from the fairway ropes as he trudged towards the finish.

For sure, he saluted the massed galleries around the 18th green but those little knots of people, many of them Irish, who offered encouragement as McIlroy passed them by on the 17th and 18th fairways received little incentive to do so again.

This is a minor issue in the general scheme of things. Of far more concern in recent days was the fevered air which surrounded McIlroy, his caddie JP Fitzgerald and coach Michael Bannon on the range on Friday afternoon as he tried to find a fix for his ailing swing.

Therefore, it was encouraging to hear McIlroy's confident suggestion that a further practice session on Saturday evening had yielded "something good. I'm looking forward to getting to Firestone next week."

Then the youngster showed shrewd perspective as he added: "I think the thing for me is to stay patient. If it doesn't happen over the next couple of weeks, it's no big deal.

"It's a 20-year career, so I'm not going to get too wound up over just a few weeks. I've got to keep working away, plugging away, working hard and eventually it will come around."

Few know that better than Harrington, the eternal optimist, whose morale remained high despite his failure to make one birdie yesterday. "I'd a bad day, didn't hole anything for birdie and made three bad bogeys.

"Yet it wasn't the worst week in the world -- I played okay the first few days and got my head in the right place, I've got to be happy with that. Very happy," he said, looking forward with relish to Reno and then chasing the victory he needs at Kiawah to ensure a seventh successive Ryder Cup appearance.

Irish Independent

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