‘I’ve come a long way’

PÁDRAIG Harrington is back up to sixth in the world rankings after a magnificent victory in the Honda Classic in Florida on Sunday night.

Only the "big five" of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen are ahead of the 33 year-old Irishman who returns to Dublin this week and plans a visit to Cardiff on Saturday for Ireland's Triple Crown clash with Wales.

He then returns to the US and Sawgrass for the Players Championship in which he has been runner-up for the past two years before directing attentions to the Bell South Classic and the Masters.

His success on Sunday means he must now revise a schedule which invariably involves a nine-week break at the end of each year because he qualifies for the season opener in the US, the Mercedes Championship in Hawaii in the first week of January.

This lucrative and prestigious event is confined to tournament winners. For now, though, he can sit back and savour a totally unexpected triumph in one of the US Tour's most highly esteemed tournaments and one that will do his confidence no end of good.

One wonders why Harrington admits to "a monkey on his back" because he hadn't previously won on the US Tour.

But he admits it was there prior to Sunday's play-off victory over Vijay Singh: "I was vaguely in contention at the American Express last year and somebody pointed out that 'you haven't won on the PGA Tour'.

"I've won a dozen times, it's not a monkey, I don't want anybody putting that on me. So I decided I would play more over here to try to win an event just to get that monkey off my back. I've always had that streak in me. If you tell me I can't do it, I've got to go and do it."

When the play-off came down to a shoot-out between himself and Singh, the wise money was on the Fijian. But it was the world's No 2 who buckled in the face of two marvellous up and downs by the Irishman. When Singh missed that little putt on the second tie hole, the look of shock on Padraig's face said everything.

"I was mentally prepared to go back to the tee. I'm thinking right, the longer it goes on, I'm going to get my chance. I'll go for the birdie. I just assumed he was going to make it. It took a couple of seconds for it to sink in.

"I don't know how I'm going to react to this but you've got to assume it is a nice thing to beat one of the top players in the world. He was playing to bring himself back to world number 1 so it's got to give you confidence.

"There is a big five at the moment and it is a little bit of a step to get up there. I've been waiting patiently. I've had nine weeks off and been losing world ranking points and patiently telling myself 'wait till I get my chance'.

"It's nice to build my points back up and get me back to right up there. I'm not breathing down the necks of the top five but am in position to catch up.

"Somebody said to me coming out here that all the good guys were playing well and winning. I just kind of grit my teeth and said, well, I'll do my own thing. But it is tough when you see these guys and know they are playing really well. All you can do is get in there, give yourself a chance."

As with every major sporting success, the country is wildly excited by Harrington's achievement, not least because he has become our first winner on the US Tour. (His victory in Tiger Woods' Target Challenge in 2002 doesn't count).

"It does mean a lot to me now that I've done it. I wouldn't have liked to put it up there beforehand, but now that I am the first, nobody can take it away from me. It does mean I've come a long way.

"I've worked very hard to get to this level.

"It's days like this that make it all worthwhile."

Harrington was able to make light of those 26 second place finishes he has had during his career but it has to get under his skin when it's raised so often.

After all, before the Honda, he had captured nine European Tour titles and the Target World Challenge. Asked if he was favourite every time he teed it up in Europe, he quipped: "Always favourite to finish second."

But he responded seriously: "I have one real goal in golf. When I finish up, when I walk away, I want to feel I gave it everything, that I got as far as I could and went down every road to endeavour to get better.

"If I finish 6th in the world rankings and that was the best I ever could have got, I'll be very proud of it. And if I finish 2nd in the rankings and felt I could have got more, then I could be disappointed.

"When I turned in '96, I would very happily have settled to be an absolute journeyman on the European Tour. That's where I thought my professional career was going to be.

"I've come a long way, I've torn my swing apart and rebuilt it and it's on days like this that you reap the benefits."

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