For something widely described as the worst-kept secret in golf, Pádraig Harrington’s eventual unveiling as Europe’s next Ryder Cup captain surprised us in just how pleasant and important a reminder it was of what a special golf nation this is, and what a special sportsperson Harrington is.
During Sky Sports’ coverage, they mentioned several times that three of the last four European captaincies have now been bequeathed to an Irishman. Trawl through the record books and it’s an even more stunning trend.
Only England has had more European Ryder Cup captains since the competition was opened to the whole continent 40 years ago; they’ve had four, in Jacobs, Jacklin, James, and Faldo. Scotland has had three in Gallacher, Torrance, and Monty. The Spanish have had two in Seve and Ollie. The rest between them have also only had two, in Langer and Bjorn — one less than this little island now has in McGinley, Clarke, and Harrington.
When McGinley, a commentator on Sky, was wheeled in yesterday for his tuppence, he spoke about how intertwined their three careers were but how their success was almost coincidental than by design. “It wasn’t like there was one particular thing we were doing in Ireland,” he said, adding that it was unlikely there’d be an Irish captain for 2022.
But their success, even their emergence, wasn’t quite as coincidental as he suggested. When Harrington himself was available for a one-to-one interview with Sky, he referenced how proud and conscious he was of
Ireland’s tradition in the competition, name-checking both Christy O’Connor Junior and Christy O’Connor Senior, and how as a kid he watched Eamonn Darcy and Philip Walton clinch the 1987 and 1995 series respectively.
“I’ve grown up on that. We have a great history in the Ryder Cup.”
Again, even since Great Britain and Ireland made room for the whole of Europe, only England have had more golfers play in the competition. Belgium, Denmark, and Germany have had two each. France, Italy, and Wales have had three apiece. Scotland have had 10. We’ve had 11, a number equalled by Spain.
Factor in the majors and Ireland’s record and contribution to the world game is even more impressive. The Spanish, for all the magic of Seve, Ollie, and Sergio, have won only eight majors. The rest of the continent has only won seven. Scotland, for all its early historic dominance and influence on the sport, has brought home only three majors over the last 85 years. Even England has only had two major winners post-Faldo in Augusta ’96. Ireland has won 10, nine of them since and including Harrington’s breakthrough — or near breakdown — at Carnoustie in 2007.
Only Australia (17), South Africa (22), England (35), and the USA (270) have won more.
It brought home again just how remarkable a run that was that Irish golf enjoyed at the majors from 2007 to 2014: nine majors, won by four different golfers. Only South African golf, between Ernie winning the Open in 2002 to winning it again 10 years later, with Goosen, Immelman, Oosthuizen, and Schwartzel sandwiched in the middle, have had a similar spread of winners over a similar period of time — and even then between them they only mustered the seven majors to Ireland’s nine.
Rory may now be the leader in the Irish clubhouse with four majors to Harrington’s three, but it was Harrington who first led the way, showed the way. That an Irish golfer, 60 years after Fred Daly, could win a Big One.
It was a long time coming too, for Harrington. He should have won that Open that Els took in 2002. But all the time he persevered, teaching us, contrary to Roy’s mindset at the time, that second wasn’t nowhere, but rather the launchpad for future success.
It’s not by chance we mention Roy. Along with Rory and Sonia, Keane and Harrington have been our outstanding sportspeople. For all the great rugby and racing heroes we’ve had, those sports aren’t truly global. Soccer and athletics are, in a way even golf isn’t, but between how he topped the field in an individual sport — no Scholes or Beckham or Giggs to assist him or give an assist for a goal from a Cole or Sheringham — and how he conducted himself, Harrington has claim to being our greatest ever sportsman, in every meaning of the term.
Like Keane, he gives terrific copy for journalists — when the Association of Golf Writers began an award scheme for players who particularly assisted them in their business, Harrington was the inaugural winner in 2013 — but without the chippiness. He’s at war with no man, and also at peace with himself, as much as he would have famously wrestled and toyed with his own game through the years.
Yesterday, he described himself as more the organised sort, à la Bernard Langer, than the “warm and fuzzy captains”, such as McGinley, that he responded best to as a player
However, even in saying that, he showed an awareness of both his self and others that suggests he has the emotional intelligence to work with his players in a way others have struggled with, from Roy as a manager to Faldo and Clarke, two of the previous three European captains to bring a Ryder Cup team over to the States.
Harrington has said that while his playing legacy is safe now, that his overall legacy is on the line; that history doesn’t remember losing captains too kindly, as the unmentioned case of Faldo proved.
But in truth, it isn’t.
If anything, Harrington’s appointment to the position has elevated his standing in Irish sport and European golf, by reminding us that he represented and represents the best of us.