Lee: I always felt Pádraig was special

UNDER normal circumstances, Albert Lee would have been across the Irish Sea in a flash to watch Pádraig Harrington defend his British Open title but, in the end, he decided he had no other option but to remain at home in Mullingar perched on his own couch.

The honorary secretary and former president of the Golfing Union of Ireland, Lee has known Harrington since the Dubliner was a 16-year-old competing in the Mullingar Scratch Cup at his home club.

Last year was the first time since 1999 that the Westmeath man didn’t make the short pilgrimage to the greatest tournament of them all and, with the way things turned out at Carnoustie, he felt obliged to retrace his steps this time.

“When he won it last year I decided that was an omen so I didn’t go again this year,” he explained yesterday.

“It worked.”

The most striking aspect to Harrington’s triumph was his total control on the back nine at Royal Turnberry. Compared to the tension and drama on the Sunday evening 12 months before this was, dare we say it, Tiger-like.

The improvement in Harrington as a player, as a back-nine Major player to be more precise, has been astonishing but few people can appreciate the incremental improvements he has made throughout his career as much as Lee.

Fourteen years ago, he was watching the Harrington clan conquer the Scratch Cup – Pádraig hitting the shots, brother Tadgh carrying the clubs and dad Paddy outside the ropes, as ever.

He turned pro a year later but not before establishing a representative amateur record that may never be surpassed by another Irish golfer – and at a time when GB & Ireland weren’t so competitive in the Walker Cup.

“What Sunday shows is that he has moved up another notch. He is now the complete player. He demonstrated throughout the four days of the tournament that he is the complete pro.

“He has a great ability to read situations and to assess the best options.

“The manner in which he played the back nine, the homeward stretch … he was in a different class.”

The pinnacle was unquestionably that sumptuous eagle on the par-five 17th on Sunday when he made light of the gusting conditions to land a five-wood to three feet from 250 yards.

That may have been the moment when the rest of the world realised that this was a man breaking into the very highest echelons of the game but the only thing that was new to Lee was the setting.

“He always had the ability to hit the great shot when it was required. When he took out that wood, the manner in which he hit it and the confidence with which he hit it, it must have been off-putting for people playing against him.

“He has it between the ears. He showed that yesterday, probably more than he ever has before.

“His ability to relax was very evident. That is something special. Not too many have that ability.”

The wider audience has been slow to realise Harrington’s full potential. Peter Alliss talked on BBC on Sunday evening about how ‘no-one’ would have pegged the Stackstown golfer as a potential major winner eight years ago.

Did Lee and others on the domestic front know better all those years ago?

“I always felt that Pádraig was special. He had a great ability to make shots when he had to make them.

“He often wasn’t at his best in the amateur games. He would be two or three down with eight or nine to play.

“The father would say ‘ah, he isn’t playing well today’ but, coming up 17, Pádraig might be one up or level and you would be wondering how the hell he managed to do it.”

The next question is, what’s next? Harrington’s back-to-back Opens saw him join a select club consisting illustrious names like Woods, Watson, Trevino, Palmer and Locke.

South Africa’s Locke remains the only player to have achieved the three-peat (1954-56) so will superstition again get the better of Lee’s travel plans next July? “I don’t know that I will watch it at home. I think I will take the chance and go over again. It’s in Turnburry next year and I don’t think I could stay away a third year in-a-row.”

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