Sunday 17 December 2017

Nation's favourite retains the faith of those who know him best

Paul McGinley backs Pádraig Harrington to regain his old form, says Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

While we worry and wonder as to what the future may hold for Pádraig Harrington, a long-time pal made a reassuring prediction about the country's much-loved golfer. "I expect him to continue to have a successful career right up to senior level," is the view of prospective Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley.

Harrington heads this week for the Hong Kong Open needing a top-five finish to claim a place among the leading 60 qualifiers on the Road to Dubai. "Only three months ago, he made a dash for the line to get into the FedEx Cup and don't be surprised if he does the same again," said McGinley.

A month short of his 45th birthday, McGinley's own season ended with recurring knee problems in Malaysia last weekend, but he plans to resume the fight in the New Year. "I'm still 22nd in the all-time money list, which means I can effectively continue playing as long as I want," he said.

"One of the things pushing me on is my ambition to become Ryder Cup captain (2014 at Gleneagles) and to do the job the way I believe it should be done. The decision will be made in the New Year and if the captaincy comes my way, I know I can be good at it. People are suggesting I'm a shoo-in, but I'm taking nothing for granted."

Though friendship can diminish perspective, McGinley is not one for idle words. Back in the summer of 2004, when Darren Clarke (9th) was no fewer than 26 places ahead of Harrington (35th) in the world rankings, he made the bold assertion: "To my mind, Pádraig is the more talented of the pair, because since I first got to know him as a 13-year-old kid, he's been blessed with a glorious short game which has never left him."

He went on: "Darren's in a different league as a ball striker, but in the context of being a successful, tournament golfer, the ability to score is far more important than the ability to hit a golf ball.

"Over a lengthy period, it is what separated Jack Nicklaus from talented contemporaries such as Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller."

Three years after making those observations, McGinley walked the play-off holes at Carnoustie, watching his World Cup partner break through to victory in the Open Championship in what proved to be a prelude to two further Major triumphs. And while delighting in Clarke's Open win last July, which came much later than most of us expected, his belief in Harrington hasn't wavered.

"Can Pádraig win another Major? Absolutely," he said. "He remains hugely competitive and still has the best short game I've seen in professional golf. I can't think of anyone who can rival him from 60 yards in: pitching, bunker play, all the scoring shots. If the groove change (January 2010) was going to affect anybody, he was very much in the firing line and it's clear he can no longer spin the ball as much as he once did. But, as I suspected, it has made no perceptible difference to scoring overall and only a minuscule change to the way the game is being played. In truth, they did no more than scratch the surface."

Not surprisingly, putting remains the key ingredient in his view, just as it's always been. "To be a great champion you don't have to be a great putter day in, day out, but you must have the ability to get hot," he said.

"Over his career, Darren couldn't have been considered a brilliant putter, but he always had the ability to get hot. And when he did, he holed everything, which is what determines whether you're going to win Majors. To me, that defines a great putter rather than a guy who can average 27, 28 or 29 putts per round, never missing from six feet and never three-putting."

All of which led us nicely to The 100 Greatest Ever Golfers (Elliott & Thompson) by English golf writer, Andy Farrell, with a foreword by Harrington. In it, Farrell divides his choices (men and women) mainly into groups of 12 or 13, from the 19th century's pioneers up to the present day. And his list includes five Irishmen: Christy O'Connor Snr, Joe Carr, Harrington, Clarke and Rory McIlroy.

Hugely informative and thought-provoking, the book brings to mind the 1995 US Masters before Tiger Woods had burst onto the professional scene. After Nicklaus had given a lengthy press conference, I happened to be among a small group of scribes who had an informal chat with

him in the interview area. Among our questions was the $64,000 one: who was the best golfer of all time? His reply was typically direct. "Hogan was the best I ever saw," replied the Bear. "I never saw (Bobby) Jones, so I can't comment on him. As for myself, that's for others to judge." Perfect.

McIlroy's inclusion at the tender age of 22 may appear rather premature, but not to McGinley. "He's up there with Tiger as the best I've seen," he said unhesitatingly.

"Remember that Lottery ad with the big finger pointing from the sky and the deep voice saying you're the lucky one? Well, that's what I think of when I look at Rory and the boundless talent the golfing gods bestowed on him."

In his foreword, Harrington agrees about McIlroy, pointing out that while he has won only one Major and two other tournaments, "for his sheer brilliance and amazing scoring at Congressional (where he won the US Open by eight strokes) I would certainly include him." And his best of them all? Nicklaus, because "he was a strong golfer and even better mentally."

As it happens, these are the very attributes which convince me that we'll see the nation's favourite back among the winners.

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