He is now being called the Celtic Tiger in comparison with Tiger Woods who is unquestionably one of the greatest American sportsmen of this or any generation
PÁDRAIG HARRINGTON’S victory in the PGA championship in Oakland Hills ranks as one of the greatest Irish sporting achievements. It was not so much that he won, or that he retained his British Open title last month, as the way he won both.
Last Sunday he was trailing Sergio Garcia by three shots with nine holes to play. In the British Open he was behind Greg Norman again with nine holes left.
At Royal Birkdale, he played the last six holes in four under par in his last two rounds, while at Oakland Hills he played the last nine holes in three under in each of his two final rounds.
“I just love the intensity of the last nine holes of a major championship,” he said in a television interview on Sunday. Because of the rain-delayed third round, he had to play the back nine twice on the final day. He played it each time in 32 shots, which was the lowest score of the week for that nine, and he did it twice.
He was a total of five under par for the back nine in his four rounds, whereas Garcia never broke par on the back nine in any of his rounds. By contrast, he was a total of five over for those holes.
The pasting that the bookies took from punters was a measure of their failure to recognise Harrington’s real achievements over the years.
He won the Spanish Open in his first year on the tour in 1996, but he was slow in following up. He regularly missed out by finishing in second place in the following years.
He almost threw away last year’s British Open at Carnoustie at the 72nd hole. After last Sunday’s win he reiterated that he did not know if he would ever have been able to play competitively again if he had blown it at Carnoustie.
It seemed Doug Sanders defined his career by missing a short putt at the 72nd in St Andrews in the 1970 British Open and Jean Van de Velde did likewise by going into the water on 72nd at Carnoustie in 1999. Harrington went into the water not once, but twice, on that hole in 2007. He would have been remembered forever for the wrong reason if he had not won.
His real greatness has not been properly recognised even in this country. He has the rare distinction of actually winning two tournaments while playing with Tiger Woods in the final round.
In the Target World Challenge in 2002, Harrington won the $1 million first prize. Early in the final round he was eight shots clear of Woods, who came roaring back to be only one shot down playing the 16th. Harrington hung on to win by two when Tiger bogeyed the last. The Irishman topped the European Tour’s order of merit in 2006 and went on a few weeks later to win the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan where he was paired with Woods for the final round. With nine holes to play, Woods was leading by three strokes, but Harrington made up the deficit and then beat him at the second extra hole in the sudden death play-off.
Nobody makes up three shots on Tiger Woods in the final nine, but Harrington did, just as he made up a similar deficit against Garcia on Sunday.
Unlike Harrington, who admitted afterwards that he was not happy with his striking on Sunday, Garcia professed to be happy with his game. He was the only player to break 70 in three rounds of the tournament, so he was playing well. This was a further measure of Harrington’s achievement in making up the three shot deficit in the circumstances.
The gracious way in which he won has further added to his international stature. He is now being called the Celtic Tiger in comparison with Tiger Woods, who is unquestionably one of the greatest American sportsmen of this or any generation. Woods is admired by almost everybody.
Harrington did not play in the British Open of 2006 because his father died that week. Remember the raw display of endearing humility when Woods sank his putt to win that British Open. As his caddy went to congratulate him, he looked up to the heavens as if to say that Tiger’s father, Earl, who had died that April, was watching. Woods burst into tears and wept uncontrollably.
The American has contributed magnificently toward breaking down racial barriers and has paved the way for Barrack Obama to be considered a viable presidential candidate, which would have been inconceivable a few decades ago.
The Americans have produced more than their share of superbrats who could give winning a bad name. Mohammed Ali became a popular sportsman internationally, but that was largely because he had the courage to denounce the Vietnam War and to refuse to serve in the American military. As a result he was controversial in the United States.
He was known as the Louisville Lip because he shot his mouth off so much. With the spotlight currently on the Olympic Games and the exploits of Michael Phelps, it is worth remembering Mark Spitz, who won a total of nine gold medals at the Mexico and Munich Olympics in 1968 and 1972.
Sports Illustrated once wrote about his “well documented reputation of being a spoiled brat, a misfit and a loner”.
Spitz was Jewish and some thought it was ironic that he won a record seven gold medals in Munich. He was asked if he saw any irony in being the conquering Jew in Germany.
“Actually, I’ve always liked this country,” he replied with a shrug and then tapped a nearby lampshade, “even though this shade is probably made out of one of my aunts”.
When asked about his plans after the Olympics, he said: “Maybe I’ll do some nudie movies. I’m hot to trot.”
Spitz said he did not want to end up like Johnny Weissmuller or Buster Crabbe. Weissmuller — who won five Olympic gold medals in swimming at Paris and Amsterdam in 1924 and 1928 — went on star in Hollywood movies as Tarzan, while Buster Crabbe, who won a swimming gold medal at 1932 games in Los Angeles, also played Tarzan and Flash Gordon.
SPITZ, who was voted one of the five top Olympians of all time, would like to have presented one of the medals to Phelps. Surely, like others, he earned that right, but he has been ignored even by the Americans.
When world records were broken at previous Olympics, we now know that many were the result of drug-enhanced performances. But it seems the latest records can be explained by a number of other factors.
All the swimmers are now professionals, not just the east Europeans or Americans. Moreover, the Beijing pool is deep throughout, so there is less turbulence, and most of the swimmers are using the new LZR streamlined swimsuits, which take up to 20 minutes to wriggle into.
The swimsuit features a “compression zone” around the torso and other parts of the body that reduce muscle and skin vibration, and thin polyurethane panels to further minimise drag, thereby allowing swimmers to conserve more energy. Such things are important when timing is now down to hundreds of a second.
Michael Phelps, who suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) could be an inspiration for many in overcoming that condition. But all of the Olympians could learn gracious winning from the likes of Tiger Woods and Pádraig Harrington.