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Ryder cup dreams on the ropes

PADRAIG HARRINGTON makes no bones about it. His prospects of playing in the Ryder Cup for the seventh successive time next September are hanging by a thread. "I've obviously put myself in a very precarious place," is how the Dubliner assesses his position in the race for a place the European team in Chicago.

Harrington endured his worst season as a professional in 2011, while his gradual decline as a global icon over the past three years was underlined by the recent decision of his primary sponsor, US business consultancy giant FTI, not to renew the $10m contract they agreed with him at the peak of his Major-winning achievements in 2008.

Since then, Harrington has slumped from world No 3 to 85th, and the 40-year-old needs to come out swinging in the next four weeks if he's to put his Ryder Cup qualifying campaign -- and indeed his career -- back on track.

From the moment he tees it up in the first round of the Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa on Thursday week, Harrington will be under intense pressure to deliver ranking points.

Effectively, he must force his way up to 64th on the global ladder in his first three tournaments to clinch a place in next month's Accenture Match Play at Tucson.

Then the 40-year-old has to fight his way back into the world's elite top 50 by March 5 if he's to play in that week's Cadillac Championship in Doral, the second World Golf Championship of the season.

Though eligible for all four Majors in 2012 after his stunning feats in '07 and '08, Harrington will stymie himself badly in the Ryder Cup race and risk severe scheduling headaches on the US and European Tours should he fail to make it to Tucson, Doral or the season's third WGC at Firestone in August.

So he must hit the ground running at Fancourt and then make a big impact in a world-class field in Abu Dhabi the following week. Harrington bypasses the Qatar Masters as he heads to California for the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, followed by the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.

Given his plight, and with many more world ranking points available in the Gulf than in corresponding early-season events on the PGA Tour's West Coast Swing, his decision not to play Qatar and choose Pebble Beach ahead of the Dubai Desert Classic is interesting -- especially as Pebble Beach and Dubai both climax on Sunday, February 12, the cut-off point for the Accenture Match Play.

Harrington insists he's refreshed after his mid-winter break and feeling good about his prospects in the year ahead after solving a couple of long-standing conundrums in his mental game and his swing and overcoming a persistent neck and shoulder muscle problem.

"I actually finished 2011 in a very positive frame of mind," he said.

As for his early-season schedule, Harrington explained that by adding the Volvo Champions to his usual itinerary, "I've given myself three tournaments to get in there (the Match Play).

"I'm playing most of the events I can in that stretch. If I played Qatar, that would be five tournaments in a row, six if I got into the Match Play. I'm always going to play Pebble Beach and Riviera -- they are the two events with the most favourable conditions for my game I'll probably come across in the US."

Starting the year in 39th place in the European Points List and 47th in the World Ranking category, Harrington is under no illusions about his prospects of making the top five in either and winning automatic selection for the Ryder Cup.

And, without a vast improvement in form, the Irishman is unlikely to find Jose Maria Olazabal as obliging as Celtic Manor skipper Colin Montgomerie should he need another world card. "By dropping out of the world top 50, I've put myself in a very difficult spot trying to get onto what clearly is going to be a very difficult team to make," he admitted.

"I didn't make it into last year's HSBC, the Dubai World Championship, the Nedbank in Sun City or Tiger's tournament, the Chevron, and by not being in these limited-field events, you miss the opportunity to rack up easy ranking points."

Harrington blames only himself, however. "Because I didn't play well last year, any points I make this year will have to be hard-earned. Basically, I'm not going to make the team by having an average year," he said.

Irish Independent