JOHN MCHENRY: Olympic pride can drive Pádraig Harrington to crowning glory

During my time at the K Club for the 2006 Ryder Cup, I found the lead-up to the competition frustrating as most of the publicity four months out from the event was negative.

Why wasn’t Ireland hosting the Ryder Cup on one of its many famous links courses? 

That’s the question we heard again and again. But it seemed no one wanted to hear a logical response!

Then, around the end of May, everything changed. 

Suddenly, the course began to receive rave reviews from Ian Woosnam, the European captain, and the media’s emphasis shifted dramatically towards the performance of the players looking to qualify for his team.

In the end, the Ryder Cup was a tremendous success but it was not just about Europe’s famous victory. 

The general public’s appetite for the event proved insatiable while the thrilling contest captivated millions all around the world.

Right now, I thank God that the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games will finally arrive tomorrow night. 

Gone will be all the chat about zika and who is or who is not competing at the games. 

Gone too will be the negativity surrounding the state of the Athlete’s Village — replaced instead by the buzz of anticipation that usually surrounds the world’s greatest sporting spectacle.

For most of the competitors over the coming weeks, the Olympics represent everything — in terms of achievement and opportunity.

For some, that may mean the opportunity to achieve a personal lifetime best performance in front of a global audience. 

For the realistic contenders for medals, success means the opportunity to secure lucrative commercial endorsements.

As for the already rich professional superstars competing in the games, the Olympics mean something altogether different.

With money and fame already secure, their motivating factor is the opportunity to proudly represent their country.

Last month the European Championships demonstrated just how passionately true fans of the game value the sacrifice and the commitment shown by players representing their country. 

So it would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall wherever some of the world’s best golfers hang out next week, as they look on from a distance.

Quietly, once the likes of Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy experience the occasion, even from a distance, I think that many if not all may regret missing this one valuable opportunity that the Olympics has offered them — to emotionally connect with their fellow Olympians and patriotic fans to whom this truly global celebration of sport means so much.

That our own men’s team are represented by the evergreen Pádraig Harrington and the wonderfully talented Seamus Power, while our ladies team are represented by the increasingly impressive Leona Maguire and Stephanie Meadows, ably led by the experienced captaincy of Paul McGinley, speaks volumes for the emerging talent in Irish golf.

Products of the Golfing Union of Ireland and The Irish Ladies Golf Union, all players are both capable and honoured to represent their country and that will bring them a long way towards realising their full potential at the games.

However, it is Harrington’s status and influence that can be most beneficial to both teams over the next two weeks. 

As the elder statesman, he can be the heart and soul — the emotional warrior leader for Ireland’s cause in Rio.

He is a three-time major champion, but such is his enthusiasm to represent Ireland at the Olympics, something special might just be in the offing. Maybe his last great odyssey.

After all, Harrington has a history of pulling rabbits out of the hat throughout his stellar career.

He was the first Irishman in a quarter of a century to win the Irish Open in 2007.

The first Irishman since Fred Daly in 1947 to win the Open Championship the same year.

The first European golfer since James Braid in 1906 to retain the Open Championship in 2008.

The first European to win the PGA Championship in 78 years (Tommy Armour in 1930). The first ever winner from Ireland.

So who would bet against an in-form Harrington being the first Irish gold medal winner at the Olympics in golf?

I certainly wouldn’t but his influence on his less experienced teammates may also be hugely significant to their performances.

Take for example, Seamus Power.

Here is a man quietly and impressively going about his business on the Web.Com Tour in the US. 

Currently sitting in ninth position, where the top 25 golfers gain full exemption onto the full PGA Tour next year, he could be forgiven for missing the Olympics in order to pursue his card.

Instead, next week he has chosen to forego a lucrative qualifying event to participate in the Olympics.

To him, the Olympics are the bigger picture, the opportunity to compete against the very best players in the game, while also representing his country.

Already a winner this year at the United Leasing and Finance Championship on the Tour in Indiana, the World’s ranked 294th player could benefit hugely from Harrington’s motivation and positive advice.

With a stroke average of 69.79 and statistically sound in all departments of his game, this is very much the type of opportunity Power should relish.

Ireland are not expected to win a medal in golf at the Olympics. There are too many other talented players — but don’t count them out.

In Pádraig Harrington, they have a jewel in the crown, an inspired champion who may just summon up one last magical moment either for himself or his teammates, who he will value as much as himself.

All for Ireland’s cause.


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