Harrington cuts down on expectations

Pádraig Harrington has us spoiled. After 60 years of little or no expectation of an Irish major victory, he came along and won three of them inside 13 months.

Harrington cuts down on expectations

Yet while Harrington’s astonishing rise to the golfing elite inspired compatriots Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlory and Darren Clarke to follow suit, the Dubliner’s drive to become better again hit a brick wall, his 2008 PGA Championship victory at Oakland Hills now having the look of a last hurrah rather than a springboard to further greatness.

With three majors to his name, 41-year-old Harrington will tee off in the 95th PGA Championship at Oak Hill still as Ireland’s most successful golfer, with McIlroy defending the title that was his second major title.

Yet while McIlroy undoubtedly has more to come, Harrington is, at 41, running out of opportunities, and further impeded by his five-year exemption as 2008 PGA champion into the Masters and US Open ending this year. He has five more years’ exemption into the PGA and will automatically qualify for The British Open until his 60th birthday but his hopes of playing the other two are over unless he can break back into the top 50 of the world rankings.

Currently ranked 77th, Harrington also must climb into the top 125 on the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup points table from 128th in these next two tournaments if he is to advance those claims by playing in the lucrative FedEx play-offs which start later this month at The Barclays in New York.

Yet while this is a big week for him on many levels, Harrington will go into it at least having learned to be more tolerant of his shortcomings since that high watermark of five years ago and recognising that he made too many demands of himself mentally when made the decision after 2008 to try and improve a winning formula.

“I’ve no regret over any decision I’ve made or and anything I did. For sure, I definitely tried too hard with my mental game because that made the difference to me winning. I definitely made it harder on myself by putting more pressure on myself to do it right.

“There’s no doubt that trying to perfect my mental game, because it was so important to the way I played it, made it harder. That’s where I went wrong but I don’t regret it.

“I was losing my tolerance of not getting it right because I knew what right was and I knew what it ends up with. It’s the same as everybody else who wins major tournaments. A lot of them get caught up in their physical game, their swing or whatever. Because they know what good is, they lose patience with average.

It has, he admits, taken until this summer for Harrington to learn to accept average and that in itself has felt liberating.

“I’ve only just realised it. A couple of months ago and it’s certainly made a significant difference to me. I’d see it in my game but more in my attitude, my intensity. I’m a lot more patient with it, a lot more tolerant. I’m more like me.

“It was a combination of (sports psychologist) Bob (Rotella) and a few other things. I’ve a better attitude.”

Which could just mean Harrington is now better equipped to achieve his goal of re-entering the world’s top 50 and thereby making a return to the Ryder Cup fray on Paul McGinley’s team to face the Americans at Glenagles in 13 months.

“I know I need to get into the world top-50 for sure but more because the only way for me to qualify automatically for the Ryder Cup is to be in the world top-50. I need to be in the top-50 to get into those events and to gather the points. It’s not easy if you’re outside of that, it’s really difficult.

“I’ve longer to get into the top-50 for the Masters … I have until March to do that. But for some of the big money events towards the end of the year, you have to be in the top-50 by September. I’m talking about the ones later on.

“I would suggest most tournaments I’ve played this year, I’ve gone in with over-expectations... I’m going in there with less expectations this week, so maybe that’s a good thing.”

Ireland’s six challengers

Rory McIlroy

World Ranking: 3

PGA appearances: 4

Cuts made: 4

Top 10s: 3

Best finish: Win (2012, Kiawah Island)

Best round: 66 (2012, R4, Kiawah Island)

Last year: Winner

Odds: 33/1

For all the problems, McIlroy has nothing but happy thoughts when it comes to PGA Championship week. Last year’s record-breaking eight-stroke victory at Kiawah was his third top-three finish in four starts in this tournament, although he will need to dig deeper than before to break out of his current slump in form.

Graeme McDowell

World Ranking: 8

PGA appearances: 8

Cuts made: 4

Top 10s: 1

Best finish: T10 (2009, Hazeltine)

Best round: 68 (three times)

Last year: T11

Odds: 55/1

Three-time winner this year but comes into the final major of the year a little more under the radar than at either the US Open or Open earlier this summer after struggling lately both with his swing and putting. McDowell is confident those facets can come right at Oak Hill this week.

Pádraig Harrington

World Ranking: 77

PGA appearances: 14

Cuts made: 9

Top 10s: 2

Best finish: Win (2008, Oakland Hills)

Best round: 66 (2008, R3 & R4, Oakland Hills)

Last year: T18

Odds: 125/1

The Dubliner who got Ireland’s major-winning ball rolling with his back-to-back Open victories, broke a European duck in the PGA stretching back to 1930 when he lifted the Wanamaker Trophy in Detroit five years ago.

Currently struggling for birdies, Harrington is battling to make the top-125 for the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup play-off series (he is lying 128th with two events to play) and needs a big week here at Oak Hill.

Shane Lowry

World Ranking: 81

PGA appearances: 1

Cuts made: 0

Top 10s: 0

Best finish: Missed cut (2010, Whistling Straits)

Best round: 71 (2010, R1, Whistling Straits)

Last year: Did Not Play

Odds: 250/1

Looking to make amends for a slow start at last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, when he struggled with the slick pace of the greens at Firestone, Lowry made a strong finish in Akron with a final-round 69 to set him up nicely for a strong week here.

Darren Clarke

World Ranking: 368

PGA appearances: 14

Cuts made: 5

Top 10s: 1

Best finish: T9 (2000, Valhalla)

Best round: 65 (2004, R1, Whistling Straits)

Last year: T54

Odds: 350/1

Finished last month’s Open at Muirfield as the leading Irish golfer thanks to his tie for 24th and is free of the injury problems that hampered his early and mid-season form. Needs to adapt quickly to the quick greens at Oak Hill, where he missed the cut in 2003.

Paul McGinley

World Ranking: 423

PGA appearances: 7

Cuts made: 4

Top 10s: 1

Best finish: T6 (2004, Whistling Straits)

Best round: 66 (2007, R2, Southern Hills)

Last year: Did Not Play

Odds: 500/1

Playing at the invitation of the PGA of America in his capacity as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain for 2014, McGinley will tee it up in a major for the first time since the 2009 Open. The Dubliner’s captaincy obligations as well as ongoing injury issues have restricted his playing schedule, this is his first outing since the Scottish Open a month ago.

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