Time healing Harrington's Barry Burn scars
Return to Carnoustie brings back contrasting memories for 2007 Open champion
Pádraig Harrington exuded such bonhomie at his return to a scene of remarkable achievement that a novel approach didn't seem at all inappropriate. And to prove it, he readily fielded questions about Frank Sinatra, while reflecting on a memorable morning at Carnoustie.
In an unprecedented departure for an Open champion, Harrington played the first, 16th, 17th and 18th holes of this year's venue last Wednesday, by way of commemorating his play-off victory over Sergio Garcia for the 2007 title. As then, he was accompanied by his long-time caddie Ronan Flood, with the addition of representatives of Wilson, whose equipment he has now been using for 20 years.
With typical candour, Harrington replied, "No", when I asked if he listened to Ol' Blue Eyes. "Obviously I've heard of Frank Sinatra, but no, I don't have him on my play-list," he said. Still, he listened intently while I recounted a tale from Carnoustie 1953.
That was when golfers and celebrities from all over these islands and further afield flocked to the home of the Barry Burn to watch Ben Hogan make his first and only challenge for the Open Championship. Among them was a group of 25 US airmen who flew 380 miles from their base in Essex to see the Hawk shoot a second-round 71.
Accompanying celebrities included the great Sinatra, who happened to be playing a concert down the road at the Caird Hall in Dundee at the time. And the singer's keen interest in golf could be gauged from the fact that while in Scotland he had a set of monogrammed clubs made for himself by the John Letters company.
Regarding events at Carnoustie, he said: "All America is rooting for Hogan and I don't think anyone is capable of beating him. Ben Hogan is the best golfer in the world."
While we Irish might not have had such grand notions about Harrington in his bid for a breakthrough Major title, there was no doubting the support from this island as events at Carnoustie '07 reached a climax. Harrington became our Hogan, notwithstanding the pain he made us endure while appearing to throw the title away on the 72nd hole.
His play of the same par-four last Wednesday couldn't have been more different. "I hit a beautiful drive down the middle of 18 and announced as the ball was in the air, 'My life would have been so much less exciting had I done this back in 2007'," he said. "Then, into a gentle breeze, I hit a lovely four-iron cut of 217 yards, in behind the flag. And I rolled in an 18-footer for birdie."
He went on: "Though I said nothing at the time, I thought to myself, 'How absurd this game is.' How easy that three had been, compared with the six I made in 2007. Mind you, had I made four back then, Sergio could have been forced to play driver instead of an iron off the 18th tee, made birdie and then been feeling so good that he'd go on to win the play-off. We'll never know."
Nothing is ever simple with Harrington. It was surprising, for instance, to be told that he has never looked back at the statistics of that event. So I informed him he was ranked 12th in driving distance (296.9 yards), 37th in fairways hit, 12th in greens in regulation and eighth in putting (111 putts for 72 holes).
When I turned to Garcia's stats by relating that he was first in driving (307.9 yards), Harrington blurted: "First! Driving distance must have been done on only one hole. He hit irons off most tees. They mustn't have measured every hole."
I went on to point to the difference in putting, where Garcia was ranked 42nd with 119 putts. "So you're suggesting he didn't hit it very close," said Harrington. "No," I replied. "I'm suggesting that he didn't putt particularly well, certainly not as well as you did."
"That's the popular interpretation of putting stats," he said. "But his conservative play in hitting an iron off most tees meant he was going to be hitting his approaches further away from the pins, which would lead to 119 putts.
"To have fewer putts, you have to be more aggressive and hit more greens. That's why the new category of strokes gained putting attempts to clarify this whole thing. But you know yourself, stats are stats. You can make what you want out of them." Then he added: "The only thing I'll say is that it's very hard to win if you're a bad putter. At the end of the day, the old adage that a good putter is a match for anybody, holds good."
Then we talked about the ubiquitous Barry Burn, the serpentine hazard which claimed Harrington's blocked drive off the 72nd tee and also his under-hit approach to the green after a penalty drop. It inflicted even more costly pain on Jean van de Velde, though the Frenchman visited it only once en route to a wretched seven on his 72nd in 1999.
I found it interesting that despite a number of meetings since 2007, Harrington has never mentioned their shared experience on what is widely acknowledged as the toughest finishing hole in championship golf. "I know Jean well," said the Dubliner, "but I haven't discussed that hole with him in any shape or form. Even though I didn't hit those shots [in 1999] or live those shots, I pretty much remember every detail. There's baggage we all have to handle when it comes to the 18th hole at Carnoustie."
This can be attributed largely to the Barry Burn, which Bernard Darwin, the father figure of modern golf writing, was moved to describe grandly as circumbendicus - a word you won't find in the Oxford English Dictionary. The very notion of having to invent a word to describe a golfing hazard tells its own story.
When I suggested to Harrington some years ago that as a par-four converted from a par-five, the threat of the burn was essentially random rather than strategic, he disagreed. Now, he's not so sure.
"While walking 60 yards to the final tee back in 2007 after missing a 10-foot putt to go three shots ahead on the third play-off hole [17th], I still felt I could lose," he said. "And I deliberately kept thinking that way, so as to keep pressure on myself. If I had fear, I would better be able to handle the situation."
He went on: "I've thought many times about what I did on the 72nd and while I figured out technically what went wrong, it was essentially a problem of over-confidence.
"I consider the presence of the Barry Burn makes it a far more difficult hole than, say, the 18th at Quail Hollow. Strategic or not, it forces you into hitting the tee-shot because you know that if you don't, you're simply kicking the can down the road. You're increasing the pressure on yourself. You've got to take the tee-shot on and you've got to hit it. When you do, you've seriously broken the back of the hole."
David Feherty once posed the question as to how much of the Barry Burn a player "could swallow without throwing up". Time has allowed Harrington to thoroughly digest his discomfort there, even to the extent of acquiring a champion's sense of detachment.
Sunday Indo Sport