Monday 17 June 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Padraig Harrington needs only to be himself in Wisconsin'

Dubliner's appointment as Ryder Cup captain is true reward for class on and off the course

Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Pádraig Harrington celebrate the 2002 Ryder Cup victory at the Belfry
Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley and Pádraig Harrington celebrate the 2002 Ryder Cup victory at the Belfry
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In Paris last September, Pádraig Harrington was an unusually closed, zipped-up figure, retaining what felt a stage-directed distance from journalists at Le Golf National.

Word in the media tent was that Thomas Bjorn had made obvious a desire for his vice-captains to steer clear of casual interaction with anyone outside Europe's team room. So beyond the tiniest nods of recognition, Harrington looked like a man absorbed in his own private world; that familiarly upbeat, swinging stride downgraded to a distant, faintly self-conscious stroll.

This was Bjorn's gig and even if the dogs in the streets of Versailles knew that Harrington was nailed on to be his successor, a Ryder Cup captain's word - for one week every two years at least - bears inordinate weight.

So Harrington, a veteran of nine renewals (six as a player), knew his place, held his silence. Only when that 17-inch tall trophy was safely back in European hands did he truly re-engage with golf writers, many of whom he's been dealing amiably with for decades.

The broad warmth greeting yesterday's announcement that he would be the third Irish European captain in the last four Ryder Cups said a lot about Harrington's place in the game. Because his easy likeability qualifies him just as compellingly for the job at Whistling Straits in 2020 as the fact that he's a three-time Major winner.

The desire to intellectualise, even mythologise the role of a Ryder Cup captain has reached such farcical levels of late, you might believe it demands the esoteric judgement of a nuclear physicist. Some are plainly beguiled by the idea that identifying what partnerships might work in foursomes but not fourball play represents some kind of academic exercise.

Of late, millions of euros have been invested to this end in analytics; Bjorn's team, fed information by six 'experts' in the field last year; Jim Furyk's by an expensively deployed consulting group. Yet nobody told Furyk that Phil Mickelson's blunderbuss driving might make him an impractical 'pick' for the penally narrow ribbons of fairway in France.

Harrington did slip momentarily towards the modern Ryder Cup taste for melodrama yesterday with an observation that he'd be putting his "career on the line" in Wisconsin. He won't be. Nick Faldo was, arguably, the worst Ryder Cup captain in history at Valhalla in 2008, but a six-time Major winner doesn't lose that status on the back of a difficult week in a team room.

In any case, Faldo's failure was - above all - one of communication. A field Harrington has few peers in.

That said, his first job may be to reconcile the sense of team and place represented by that blue European flag with the fact that his likely on-course leader, Rory McIlroy, has - as yet - committed to just two events on his home tour this year.

In many ways, McIlroy's stance captures the glaring artificiality of the Ryder Cup. Yet, for all that, it remains a captivating spectacle that, history tells us, can derange even the most temperate of golf minds.

In 2002, after helping Europe to victory at The Belfry, Harrington described the experience as a player thus: "It's not a pleasant feeling these matches. It's like riding a roller coaster or bungee jumping. As it's happening, you're thinking, 'Why am I doing this?' When it's finished, you're thinking, 'Oh, that was great!'

A year earlier, he recalled a moment during his debut at Brookline, reaching the par-three sixteenth in his singles match against Mark O'Meara when he recognised captain Mark James' discomfort at Harrington seeking his advice on what club to use.

"I kind of laughed and said, 'We actually wanted to be here, we actually worked to get into this position, nobody held a gun to our heads!'" he said in a Sunday Independent interview.

Despite encountering abuse from the Massachusetts galleries for what they considered his slow play that day, abuse echoed by one TV commentator who suggested his deliberation "gave new meaning to the Boston Marathon", Harrington retained the mental resolve to beat O'Meara one up.

His six playing appearances between '99 and '10 were marked by mixed fortune - after winning four out of a possible five points at Oakland Hills in '04, he secured just a half point at The K Club two years later - yet, he was quickly identified by team-mates as an instinctively wise, authoritative figure in the team room.

A rare ability to laugh at his own, more eccentric practice rituals married to an almost unparalleled work ethic that once prompted his old coach Bob Torrance to remark, "He would practise until he couldn't swing the club anymore", certainly made clear to team-mates that Harrington's would be a voice worth listening to.

His old World Cup-winning team-mate Paul McGinley is seen as having set the template for a modern Ryder Cup captaincy at Gleneagles in 2014, a sixteen-and-a-half to eleven-and-a-half European victory that triggered Mickelson's extraordinary attack on then US captain Tom Watson.

Islanded

Golfers are, by their nature, islanded figures; people programmed to look after themselves, not others. A Ryder Cup captain's job is, essentially, to rewire that mindset. To create the sense (illusion maybe) of team.

That's been a consistently problematic issue for superstar American teams whose recent history of self-sabotage was duly honoured at Le Golf National in spite of the much heralded (and parodied) task force put in place after Gleneagles.

Yet Harrington knows too that Europe will be facing a wounded animal at Whistling Straits. A sublimely gifted team (five of the current top six in the world rankings are American) acutely aware of the perception that they simply cannot master the art of playing for one another.

What will his style of leadership be?

The hope is simply that it will be a style true to who he is, one faithful to his innate openness, humanity and humour as distinct from any curtsy to corporate stuffiness or faintly hilarious sanctimony. The most important job a Ryder captain faces is to be liked and trusted by his players.

With Harrington at the helm, that puts Europe on the front foot already.

Irish Independent

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