Moment of truth
‘Nothing to stop me this week' insists Harrington as he backs Tiger to get stronger from 'adversity'
STARTING with Mark O'Meara and Jim Furyk on Sunday, Tiger Woods has been warmly embraced by quite a few of his fellow professionals on his return to the fold at Augusta National this week, but Padraig Harrington certainly won't be joining the Masters hug-fest.
"Listen, I'm Irish, I don't even hug my brothers," laughed Harrington, when the question arose yesterday.
The Dubliner was clearly in great form, giving ample measure of his confidence going into the first Major of the season. Everyone wanted to talk about Tiger and Harrington happily obliged, but his focus is very much on No 1 -- himself.
Harrington didn't watch the live telecast of Monday's press conference at Augusta National. "There's the small matter of a golf tournament going on this week and I'd a bit of work to do," he said.
Typically, Harrington offered a cogent, no-nonsense view of how Woods is viewed in the locker room after four months in which even his colleagues discovered they really didn't know him much, if at all.
"I think everybody has found out he was difficult to know," he said, clearly referring to shocking revelations about Tiger's private life since the ill-fated night of November 27.
"Tiger has always struggled to mix with the players purely because anywhere he goes, people want things from him," he added. "He's not somebody who comes into the locker room and sits down and talks (with his fellow players).
"He'd be there during a rain delay but he knows he can't afford to spend any more time than necessary around the golf course because (for him) that's always going to be a stress-maker.
"It's something that's imposed on him. If he goes into a locker room, it's a case of 'can you sign this or that' and, in general, everything builds up. I'd suggest that over the years, apart from rain delays, Tiger would use about one out of 10 locker rooms
"In the evening times, it's not like he can say to a couple of golfers, 'c'mon, we're all going out for dinner'. I'm sure if he walked into a restaurant and sat down, people would be phoning friends to tell them he was there and, pretty soon, the place would be besieged.
"I know myself if I was sitting in a hotel room in the evenings I'd go up the wall. That's not the way to live your life yet in many ways, he was forced into that lifestyle, forced to pull back and withdraw," Harrington continued.
As for Woods' press conference, he said "most people reacted by saying how much better Tiger was when he's being asked questions rather than having a prepared statement -- how much more natural and comfortable he was in that situation."
Most players will separate Tiger's private life from his golf. "We don't know what bearing recent events are going to have on him as a golfer in the short term. I have no idea what's going on in his head this week, if his mind is on the golf or not. You never can quite tell.
"But, definitely, long term, I think he'll be a stronger player because of it. Adversity makes you stronger," Harrington said. "I heard somebody say he's working on having a better attitude out there on the golf course and you've actually got to think he's going to be a better player going forward."
There have been suggestions that a new, more easy-going approach might blunt Tiger's competitive edge. Yet the Dubliner insisted: "Looking from the outside, Tiger changed in the last couple of years and definitely was a lot tougher on himself out there.
"That wasn't who he was maybe six or seven years ago, so I don't think he's changing personality, he's going back to who he is. In the long term, with many things in his life being cleared up, you've got to think he's going to be more at peace on the golf course and not getting as frustrated and angry out there."
As for Tiger's prospects of winning this week, Harrington bowed to the wisdom of the bookmakers, who all have made Woods a favourite to win his fifth Green Jacket on Sunday.
"They'd know a lot more about these things than I would," he said, though Harrington clearly was unsure about even Tiger's ability to win a Major without having played competitive golf in nearly five months.
"You know, in a year's time I'd be greatly surprised if he wasn't contending (at the Majors). As for this week, I wouldn't be hugely surprised if he did contend but you just don't know. Certainly, if he managed to win, players would regard him as invincible," he said.
The sombre, businesslike atmosphere at Tiger's media briefing on Monday could hardly have contrasted more sharply with the hilarity of Harrington's.
When a reporter paused after saying "If you'd taken five months off" and then continued with "from not playing the game, how do you think you'd be when you did come back", Harrington quipped: "For an awful moment there I thought, you were going to say if I theoretically ... " (strayed like Tiger).
When the laughter died down, the Irishman continued: "I'd be a hopeless wreck if I didn't play for that long but that's my nature. You've got to remember that Tiger, of all the competitive players, has a good ability to bring his game from the practice ground to the golf course."
In that regard, Harrington could hardly be happier with his preparation for the Masters. He managed to put himself in contention going into the weekend at the Transitions Championship in Fort Lauderdale and again at last week's Shell Houston Open.
He's not the least bit worried by some ragged play over the weekend at either venue. Fatigue was a factor at Transitions after Harrington's flying visit to a St Patrick's Day party hosted by Barack Obama on the eve of the tournament, while, despite his best intentions, his focus clearly had shifted to Augusta last Saturday and Sunday in Houston.
"I'm comfortable. I know it's not too far away," said Harrington, clearly confident in his ability to handle the famous vagaries of Augusta National and break clear of fellow three-time Major champions, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, by winning the Green Jacket this weekend.
"Let me put it this way, there's nothing there stopping me this week."
The omens certainly have been good in Augusta this week as hot weather resulted in an eerie cloak of pollen falling on the city.
It's as if the entire region has been powdered green ... in honour of an Irish victory, perhaps?