Sunday 22 April 2018

Thrilling tale is not over yet

Pádraig Harrington is not about to close the door on his trophy cabinet just yet, as he tells Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece

O n returning from a World Cup triumph at Kiawah Island in November 1997, Pádraig Harrington arrived for a meeting at Stackstown Golf Club driving a modest Honda Civic, sponsored by Rathdown Motors. Last Wednesday, for the official opening of the club's Harrington Room, his mode of transport was a decidedly rare Aston Martin DB7.

Yet the comfort of wealth doesn't appear to have diminished his drive for further success. Addressing what he views as the understandable bewilderment of his many supporters, he said: "It's not over. I believe there are plenty more wins to come. One hundred per cent."

When we talked last week, there was an acute awareness of the current public mood. There was an understanding smile when I repeated such laments as: "What's happened to Pádraig?" or "He's not even challenging any more", or "Is Harrington ever going to win again?" And when I suggested that these remarks might appear naïve or ill-informed, he refused to be critical.

"No, they're not naïve," he said. "From my perspective, however, the difficulty is that people love hard and fast assurance. They like things black and white. They want brief, definitive responses. Yet the truth is that while I achieved steady improvement through my career, there were highs and lows along the way. It's never been as smooth as people might imagine."

There was a time when Harrington gave the impression of being a sort of manana golfer in the way he handled disappointment. There was always next week's challenge, or another Major championship further down the road. Five months from his 40th birthday, however, there is a clear awareness of time passing, of a finite span to a productive tournament career.

The point was raised in a recent piece on Ireland's greatest golfer by Derek Lawrenson of the Daily Mail, who quoted Nick Faldo as saying: "I honestly think there are only so many times you can recharge your life battery and, looking back now, I can see that mine was drained (after the 1996 Masters triumph)."

On listening to the quote, Harrington knew immediately what Faldo meant. "You could see it happening," he said. "And the fact that it wasn't the work ethic that had changed made it probably the best example of burn-out. I like to tell the story of playing a practice round with Faldo at Augusta about 10 years ago, when he was grinding for all he was worth. Though his competitive career was effectively behind him at that stage, I found myself remarking after nine holes: 'You were really grinding out there, Nick'. And he replied, 'Yeah. I'd love to win one more Major, just for the excitement of it'."

Harrington went on: "His problem was that he'd had his 20 years. That's what most professionals get. It happened to Seve, Woosie and Lyle. And even at that, the season is now so long and demanding that you have to be careful not to do too much. I suppose the only exception was Langer, simply because he's Langer. I've studied it. You still love the winning feeling, but no matter how hard you try, the adrenalin is no longer there. As Nicklaus put it, you wake up one morning and there are no butterflies.

"The passion, the excitement, the nerves, are hugely important in helping you to focus so much better. Otherwise getting yourself up at 4.30 in the morning for a 7.30 tee-time, or going to the gym for a 45-minute work-out, begins to drag."

Does Harrington, who won't complete his 20 years on tour until 2015, still have that buzz? "Absolutely. I'm genuinely enthused and excited right now. The biggest thing at the moment is trying to hold myself back." It seemed time to explore another avenue, like the seemingly self-destructive swing changes he engaged in after three Major triumphs in 13 months. Even Tiger Woods alluded to it in a recent television interview.

"People keep talking about what I did after 2008 but I had made changes prior to that," he said. "When I won the Open in 2007, I played with a draw and because of the bad tee-shot I hit on the 72nd hole, I changed to a fade the following year. And won two more Majors.

"The fact is that I played so poorly down the stretch in the PGA at Oakland Hills that my concern afterwards was to eliminate hitting those bad shots. Back then, I didn't know the physical cause of those bad shots. Now I fully understand it and having that understanding makes me a far better player. Every time I hit the practice ground, I get excited that today might be the day when I find the secret. Maybe burn-out for me will be believing that I'm not going to find that secret."

Meanwhile, Harrington -- who heads to the Houston Open this week -- greatly appreciates the honour of having his own clubhouse room, if only for the fact that he is very much a product of Stackstown. And observing him with his fellow members last Wednesday, it was clear from his self-deprecation that he wouldn't dare stray too far from his roots. "I feel like I've taken the winner's prize in a Saturday medal," said the golfing hero who never won a nett prize as an amateur at his home club.

Among close on 200 pieces of memorabilia in his Stackstown 'room', the items which prompted most emotion in him had to do with that World Cup success with Paul McGinley. "I didn't expect it to move me so much, but it represented the biggest jump for me competitively as a professional," he explained.

Putting the display together involved raids on two attics -- in the player's own house and his parents' house in Rathfarnham -- followed

by several car journeys to the club. Included are blazers, crystal and trophy replicas. Some items would probably be best forgotten from the player's standpoint, notably copies of the 54-hole scorecards from the Benson and Hedges International at The Belfry in 2001. That was when he was disqualified on the morning of the final day after it had been discovered he failed to sign his first-round card. Their inclusion, however, reflects a determination that the display would truly represent all aspects of his career.

"It was a fantastic experience, digging the stuff out," he said. He then recalled the occasion when, as a five-year-old, he joined a group of about 40 adults physically levelling Stackstown's embryonic 12th green with their feet. "Which meant I didn't do a good job because it remained the slopiest green on the golf course," he said. Then there was the little fort he built with stones, to the left of the second green.

He also recalled how he was caught in the stomach by a ball, hit miraculously at an angle of 90 degrees by his brother Feargal off the 14th tee. "I had the red mark for a month afterwards," he said. "And I discovered the amazing things big brothers can do, when he proceeded to convince me that I was in the wrong."

Later, he was made aware of members "throwing things at the TV in the bar" when he slipped up in some event on tour. He also recounted stories in the wake of Carnoustie, "of people who physically broke their television while I was having my troubles on the 72nd. And of others who turned their television off and didn't realise I'd won.

"These are the stories which made the win more real for me," he added. "What people I knew when I was growing up felt about it. The Room is part of all that and hopefully something people will enjoy."

As a charming postscript to last Wednesday's celebrations, Stackstown presented Breda Harrington with honorary life membership of the club. It had the effect of creating a perfect link with the player's final year as a rank-and-file member, when he and Breda won the Mother and Son tournament at Malahide GC in July 1995.

As I stood with Harrington in a room abounding with memories, he suddenly asked me to pick my favourite occasion from his career. My response was Oakland Hills, August 2008. Seeing an Irishman win back-to-back Major championships in the space of 22 days, won't be easily forgotten. So spectacular was it, that a normally loquacious player was left almost totally at a loss for words by the enormity of what he had achieved.

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