Will the real Padraig Harrington stand up?
THE wild card Colin Montgomerie dealt Padraig Harrington is more a challenge than a favour to an old friend. It urges the 'real' Padraig Harrington, three-time Major champion and renowned as one of the deadliest finishers in golf, to turn up at Celtic Manor.
Not the pale imposter who picked up barely half a point in each of the past two Ryder Cups, or who hasn't managed to win on any Tour in more than two years.
It's a gamble ... but should it pay off, Montgomerie, his European team and, indeed, the Irishman himself, will reap spectacular reward. Monty knows from experience how an act of faith by a Ryder Cup captain can flick the switch in a player's head and yield rich dividends.
The Scot hadn't won in nearly two years when European skipper Bernhard Langer handed him a pick for the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills. Monty responded by winning three points and sinking the putt that clinched a record-breaking victory over the United States.
Significantly, he paired up with Harrington for the opening match against Hal Sutton's 'Dream Team' of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson -- the European duo setting the tone for an unforgettable weekend in Detroit with a famous victory.
His confidence rekindled, Montgomerie, then 40, embarked on an Indian summer in his career as he registered three more victories on Tour and clinched his place on the Ryder Cup team at The K Club in 2006.
Harrington, 39 today, has the class and the know-how not just to become a force once again at the Ryder Cup but to win more Major titles.
Exhausted by a fraught final bid to get onto the European team at The K Club and utterly spent after winning two Major titles in the six weeks before Valhalla, one can understand why Harrington flopped at the past two Ryder Cups. Yet his stunning loss of consistency this season is less easy to comprehend.
Harrington believes errors in his schedule left him needing a Ryder Cup wild card. Yet it really can only be attributed to poor golf, especially at this year's Majors, in which the Dubliner missed three out of four cuts and managed only a workman-like 22nd behind Graeme McDowell at the US Open.
Sure, Harrington had plenty of top-10 finishes over the 12-month qualifying campaign, but a player of his quality should challenge far more often for victory. Yet that's not possible if every few steps forward, almost inevitably, are followed by one or two back.
For example, in 16 tournaments since the CA Championship at Doral last March, Harrington has only once managed to post four sub-par rounds -- that solitary effort came at the '3' Irish Open in Killarney, where he finished second to Ross Fisher.
If his problems in the first half of 2009 could be attributed to an ill-advised swing change, Harrington's principal difficulties this year have been with his mental game, as evidenced by his performance at the US Masters, the British Open and again at the US PGA.
Though he had hit the ball beautifully in the days leading up to all three Majors, Harrington simply crumpled once the bullets started to fly. That awful wedge shot he chunked into the Swilken Burn on his way to a double-bogey six on his first hole at the British Open serves as a sorry metaphor for the Dubliner's angst-riddled efforts at this year's Majors.
Eyebrows shot up at Gleneagles on Sunday when Montgomerie announced Harrington, Luke Donald and Edoardo Molinari, the spectacular winner of the Johnnie Walker Championship, as his three captain's picks.
Especially as this was at the expense of Justin Rose and Paul Casey, No 8 in the world rankings issued yesterday (Harrington was down to 19th after being leapfrogged by Molinari and Matt Kuchar, who beat Scotland's Martin Laird in sudden death at The Barclays).
Particular exception was taken to Monty's description of Harrington as "a man we feel that nobody in match-play golf wants to play".
Hang on, came the chorus, wasn't Harrington eliminated by Pat Perez and Jeev Milkha Singh in the first round at the last two Accenture World Championships and beaten by Chad Campbell and Scott Verplank in singles at the two most recent Ryder Cups?
Hardly the sort of form to leave the Americans quaking in their boots. Yet Monty was referring to the Harrington of old. The guy he played with at Oakland Hills and who astounded his fellow countrymen at Killarney last month with a Harry Houdini display that would put the fear of God into any match-play opponent.
In the death-or-glory atmosphere at this year's Ryder Cup, the European captain expects the real Harrington to re-emerge ... and merely by selecting him, Montgomerie has given the Dubliner the morale boost he needed to turn around his season and reignite his flagging career.
Every time one turns a card, it's a gamble. Yet, if his faith in Harrington does the trick, the payoff for Monty and Europe at Celtic Manor should be spectacular.
At his best, Harrington is the greatest European player of his generation, leagues ahead of Casey or Rose, McDowell or McIlroy, or even the magnificent Molinari brothers.
And that's the guy Montgomerie has invited to Celtic Manor.
Ironically, Casey played with the Dubliner at The Barclays on Sunday and read the signal correctly when he saw Caroline Harrington give her husband's caddie, Ronan Flood, the thumbs-up on the sixth hole.
"Caroline's a great friend and she'd have said something to me if I'd been picked, so at that point I kind of knew I hadn't," the crestfallen Englishman said afterwards.
Anyone who suspected Harrington or Donald had prior inkling of their selection needed only to look at the effect Sunday's breaking news had on their respective rounds.
After signing for a four-over-par 75 that sent him plummeting into a tie for 47th place, Harrington admitted: "Strangely enough, once I got the pick, I actually couldn't do much right for about five or six holes."
Donald got word as he left the 10th green and bogeyed his next two holes. Indeed, after opening with six successive birdies and completing the front nine in 28, he took 40 strokes on the homeward journey and had five bogeys in his final eight holes.
Finishing tied-15th with Poulter (70) and Justin Rose (72) on six-under, Donald was one behind Casey, whose closing 69 earned him a share of 12th with Tiger (67). So Tiger, Casey, Donald, Poulter, Rose, Harrington and McIlroy (tied-56th on one-over after a final-round 72) all comfortably made the 100-man field for this week's second FedEx Cup play-off, the Deutsche Bank Championship.
And don't be surprised if the Dubliner, relieved to put recent Ryder Cup dramas behind him and boosted by his captain's confidence, shoots the lights out in Boston.
Casey deserves sympathy as the biggest victim of a Ryder Cup qualification system that has been rigged by the European Tour to favour their own events, though their foremost stars are global performers.
Ludicrously, of the 10 Europeans in the top 25 on the current world rankings, just five qualified for Monty's team, leaving five -- Casey, Donald, Edoardo Molinari, Harrington and Rose -- needing a pick.
If they flipped the two qualifying categories, counting first the five men at the top of the European points table followed by the next four in the world rankings, nine of Europe's 10 top world-ranked players would have qualified, including Edoardo Molinari.
Ironically, Casey would still be looking for a wild card along with Fisher, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Peter Hanson and Francesco Molinari.
Yet the drama over recent weeks would have been nowhere near as intense, while the likes of Harrington, Donald, Casey and Rose would have been under zero pressure to skip the FedEx Cup.
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