Saturday 24 February 2018

Padraig Harrington: Before you would look for Tiger Woods' score, now there is a phenomenon of players capable of winning

Triple Major-winner tells Liam Kelly that it's not just the Big 3 who can spread panic Tiger-style when they go top of the leaderboard

Padraig Harrington during the Pro Am prior to the start of the 72nd Open d'Italia at Golf Club Milano on September 16, 2015 in Monza, Italy
Padraig Harrington during the Pro Am prior to the start of the 72nd Open d'Italia at Golf Club Milano on September 16, 2015 in Monza, Italy
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

Padraig Harrington has seen an array of impressive talent emerge during his 20 years on Tour but nothing to match the combined expertise of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day.

The reason? When they are on song, 'the Big 3' have the ability to frighten the opposition.

That quality used to be the sole preserve of Tiger Woods. Now the 'fear factor' can come from a variety of players.

Always a keen observer and analyst of the game, Harrington would extend his opinion to include Bubba Watson and Rickie Fowler.

These are exciting times for golf, and the Dubliner, who is recovering well from recent knee surgery, concedes that the landscape changed dramatically at top level in 2015.

McIlroy (26) won four times and retained his Race To Dubai title as Europe's No 1, despite that infamous ankle injury which came at the wrong time of the season.

Spieth (22) exploded on to the scene to elevate his status from 'promising' a year ago after his Australian Open win to 'awesome' 12 months later.

Five tournament wins, including the Masters and US Open, and heading the FedEx Cup rankings were the highlights of a sensational year.

Day (27) shattered the glass ceiling and his 'nearly man' status in Majors by winning the US PGA Championship. The Australian also triumphed in four PGA Tour events.

Impressive indeed, and Harrington, who won the Honda Classic in March, feels that there is more to come in 2016 from these players and others who have impressed him this year.

It is a far cry from the days when Woods stood apart in a class of his own, as Harrington recalls.

"In my day when I turned up at a Major or an event, no matter how much you tried to avoid it, you would always look for Tiger Woods' score," he explains.

"Because if Tiger Woods shoots 65 in the first round, you know he's going to be there on Sunday evening, and you know that there's a chance he's going to shoot 65 in the second round, third round and fourth round, and win by ten shots.

"So, there was one name for a long time. If anybody else was leading, like I describe myself. . . if you gave me a four-shot lead, I'd stall with it.

"I'd be trying to protect it and hold on to it, and the chances were I'd come back to the pack, or the pack would come to me. But ultimately it would be a very tight finish.

"Not that I wouldn't win with it, but I'd make it so that it was tight whereas Tiger Woods would go away from the field."

I ask what the three-time Major winner thinks about the tag of 'the Big 3' in relation to Day, McIlroy and Spieth - don't forget that the original 'Big 3' were Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.

"They have separated themselves in some way but I don't think it's just the Big 3," Harrington says.

"What you have at the moment is a phenomenon of a number of players who are capable of lapping the field.

"You have four guys who are capable of lapping the field at the moment and a couple of other guys who should be, but who haven't quite got there.

"I don't see why Bubba Watson is not included in this, because he has the ability. If Bubba opens up in a tournament and is leading after day one, he's a cause to be concerned about in a Major.

"Obviously Rory, Jordan and Jason Day have proved that if they're leading from day one, the rest of the field have got to watch out. They can take a lead and run with it, which is very impressive."

Ian Poulter spoke recently about how hard success is to watch from the outside, stressing that the performances of the big guns will make the other top players work harder to match them.

His remarks underline the point Harrington makes about the manner in which McIlroy, Spieth and Day have pushed ahead of the pack, but there are potential threats to their dominance from Fowler, Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson.

"I get a lot of ribbing about Rickie Fowler because Rickie Fowler is the one I often pick out as 'Rickie's the one to watch' and as people put it, 'you're not really pulling one out of the blue there, are you?'," says Harrington.

"But I really like his attitude. If the other three guys hadn't won the Majors, I'd be touting Rickie Fowler as the next big thing, but the fact is, the other guys have gone and done it.

"He's substantially behind Rory and now Jason and Jordan, but Rickie is the guy that to me, has everything, has got it right mentally.

"He has pretty much done everything but win Majors."

Justin Rose has a US Open on his CV, and this year gave the Majors a right good rattle, finishing tied-second in the Masters, tied-sixth in the Open Championship and fourth in the US PGA championship.

Harrington respects Rose's qualities but does not see him as a player who will gain a lead in a Major and just keep extending it in the fashion of, for example, McIlroy in the 2011 US Open, where the Holywood man won by eight shots.

"As good as he is, you'd be more afraid of Justin with nine holes to go if he was in the lead, or if he was two behind with nine holes to go," says Harrington. "He's proved himself in the pressure situation."

Regarding Johnson, his failure to close out on chances to win Majors, such as this year's US Open, keeps him from worrying opponents.

"Dustin Johnson has got the firepower to do it, but he hasn't actually done it, so the answer is 'no' at this time," says Harrington.

Irish Independent

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