Having eyed the only seat in the interview area at Mount Juliet, I proceeded to take my rest. That’s when Pádraig Harrington appeared on the scene. “Move!” he instructed with a smile. “I’m the senior here.”
Indeed he was, undisputed king of the hill after his nail-biting triumph last weekend in the US Senior Open at Saucon Valley CC, Pennsylvania. He looked remarkably fresh and fit, despite the additional stress of transatlantic travel.
Though he expressed the fear that stamina could become a factor at the Horizon Irish Open, the body was clearly willing as he executed a typically deft up and down on the testing 18th during Friday’s second round. “Gritty, isn’t he?” an enthralled observer remarked to Des Smyth. “He’s the grittiest of them all,” replied Smyth.
From decades observing Harrington, certain situations remain strong in the memory. Like the moment behind the 72nd green at Oakland Hills in August 2008 when the PGA Championship gave him his third Major triumph. Turning to his manager, Adrian Mitchell, the only words he could utter were: “It’s hard to believe, Mitch.” Nothing further was necessary.
The calm, thorough Yorkshireman, who has been handling Harrington’s business affairs for 27 years, wasn’t in Pennsylvania, but he knew exactly what to do.
“I waited for about 30 minutes after the winning moment, then I phoned him,” he said. “Our final words were to make arrangements to meet for breakfast at Mount Juliet this [Wednesday] morning. Which made it very different from Oakland Hills. We just looked at each other, shook hands and smiled.”
Was Mitchell surprised by this latest success? “I prefer to say that Pádraig never fails to impress me. Having seen all sides of him over the years, on and off the golf course, I can say that he leaves nothing to chance and will shoot the best score he possibly can on a given day.
“If things go wrong, he will deal with it and come back stronger the next time. That’s been especially true of his second places, which number as many as 33, depending on which list you have. He has dealt with all sorts of situations and seems to learn from every one.”
Mitchell suspected something special was happening when he observed the famous stary, scary Harrington eyes over the weekend. “It was the same look I remembered from Carnoustie [2007 Open Championship] and Oakland Hills. Not so much from Birkdale [2008 Open]. He’s always talked about his three Majors being different from each other and this one took him down another different road ... the big lead, then Steve Stricker making a charge.”
Mitchell concluded: “And there will be more. This won’t be the last one.”
They say that the great ones manage to find a way. How else can one explain Harrington’s resolve when facing a searching test of his putting on greens running at 13 on the Stimpmeter, while Stricker ate relentlessly into his lead?
Essentially, it became a tale of 30-footers, which were largely the product of indifferent approach play by the leader. Seconds before Stricker birdied the 72nd to set a target of nine under par, Harrington holed a 30-footer for birdie on the 15th.
Then came another 30-footer, downhill on the 16th where he did remarkably well to stop the ball beside the hole. An even more serious test came at the 144-yard 17th, where another poor approach meant Harrington faced a six-footer for par.
The pressure was at its most acute down the last, where he eased a 25-footer across the green before leaving himself a three-footer, straight uphill, for the title. We will never know the stress of those climactic moments, except that he somehow found the mental strength to cope. As champions do.
The most difficult of those closing putts seemed to be the one on 17. “In my preparation, I got down and hit putts there,” said Harrington. “While it looked like a left-half six-footer, I knew from practice that there was no left-to-right in that section of the green. So I went straight and when I looked up, it was rolling straight in. I was very pleased with that.”
Among his rewards were $720,000; the Francis D Ouimet Memorial Trophy for one year; a gold medal; exemptions into the next 10 US Senior Opens and exemption into the 2023 US Open at The Los Angeles CC. His victory also made this the first time in 25 years that the US Senior Open, US Open (Matt Fitzpatrick) and US Women’s Open (Minjee Lee) were all won by non-Americans. In 1997, the three champions were Ernie Els (US Open), Graham Marsh (US Senior Open) and Alison Nicholas (US Women’s Open).
On a local level, Harrington has become the first Irish winner of this title. The general standard in the senior Majors, however, was set by Christy O’Connor Jnr, who won the Senior British Open at Royal Portrush in 1999 and went on to retain the title at Royal Co Down in 2000, beating South Africa’s John Bland into second place on both occasions.
Meanwhile, Harrington’s great strength at Saucon Valley was an awareness of his weakness. “I didn’t feel great on the greens, especially over those three two-putts on the last three holes,” he admitted. “But throughout my career, I’ve always been excellent when my back’s to the wall. When I have to do something, and it’s very clear what I have to do, that’s when I’m at my best. When there’s no alternative. There comes a point when you just have to get it done. It doesn’t matter how; just do it. I believe I become a better player when I get to the point where I’ve no excuse.”
All of the tension inherent in such self-examination, seemed to make little impact on Shane Lowry. Did he watch his good friend toiling down the stretch on Sunday? “I didn’t,” he admitted with remarkable candour. “I fell asleep. When I woke up, Wendy [his wife] said he’d won.”
Which was clearly a far less stressful way of seeing things through.