IN terms of flying the flag at this week’s Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, it will be two steps forward and one back for Pádraig Harrington.
In bidding to be only the second European Tour player to win the so-called fifth major, the first was Sandy Lyle in 1987, Open champion Harrington will be one of a 21-strong contingent from Europe when he tees it up on The Players’ Stadium Course tomorrow (1.33pm Irish time) alongside Masters champion Trevor Immelman and American Woody Austin.
Yet despite the huge wave of Irish golfing success this year, with victories from Graeme McDowell in March and then Damien McGrane, Darren Clarke and Peter Lawrie in the last three weeks, Harrington will be the lone competitor with a tricolour next to his name on The Players’ hi-tech scoreboards.
“Oh, great, no pressure on me,” was Harrington’s reaction when he sat down for a press conference at the TPC Sawgrass media centre yesterday morning.
“It is fantastic for Irish golf,” he said of the recent Irish successes.
“I think each of the last three wins are probably bigger wins than that for Irish golf. Obviously Damien and Peter have been out on Tour a number of years, and this is the next step, their first win.
“So it’s obviously a very big deal in an individual sense for them.
“Obviously it is huge for Darren, coming back from what’s been a very tough period in his life and on the golf course. It’s great to see him out there winning again, and hopefully he can separate his home life and his Tour life and keep playing good golf like he did that week.”
Harrington subscribed to the theory that one success had prompted another among the Irish.
“I think you have to take Graeme out, obviously, and Darren because he’s an older, more mature player than the others. But I think Damien was so … focused. He was going about doing his thing, and he broke the mould.
“There’s no question, he put it up to Peter. They’re very good friends; they play a lot of golf together. And often we would have looked at Peter and hoped he’d kick on. I think Damien winning pushed him into it. We would have always said Peter was well capable of winning tournaments, and I think it did take Damien’s win to prove it to himself.
“Hopefully they’ll go on and do more. But it was fantastic to see. Just obviously Damien winning was tremendous; followed up by Darren. But the fact that Peter and Damien would be such good friends, their careers would be so close together in terms of they being out on Tour together for so long, it’s interesting to see. There must be something in it, there must be. Maybe that might be something good for majors with the European players.”
Harrington has a good record at The Players, finishing second twice in seven prior appearances before this week. Yet, switching into European mode, he spoke about the continent’s lack of success at the tournament.
“You know, obviously at the moment in Europe, certainly in the last six or seven years, we play more target golf than is played in the US. Our golf courses tend to have higher rough, narrower fairways, softer greens, so it is very much target golf. The courses over here tend to be wider and a little bit faster and definitely firmer greens in general.
“So it’s kind of reversed in that sense. I don’t think you can put a stereotype on a European player now. Maybe a European player is better at playing in slightly inclement weather. He certainly gets that a little bit more often.
“So I don’t hold the burden that no European has won since Sandy Lyle. I’m an individual going out here trying to compete against the other 155 guys … I’m trying to do it as an individual and not holding anything out, trying to put any sort of run on things that it can’t be done.
“I can’t figure it out. If there is a reason why Europeans haven’t won, I don’t know.”
The new wave of winners on the European Tour could also see a much changed Ryder Cup team under Nick Faldo at Valhalla in September, Harrington said.
“This Ryder Cup looks like it could end up with six rookies and a younger team. We had a dinner at the Matchplay this year, and I was the second-oldest person in the room; actually not including Faldo, second-oldest of the players, I would say.
“So there is a changing of the guard. Now with the likes of Darren coming back into form and things like that, it might not be as extreme as I thought.
“I don’t see it happening in the States. I think with (US captain) Paul (Azinger’s) four picks, I think it’s a very sensible situation for him. They’re going to have a number of rookies coming into the team, but you can be sure his four picks will go to the more experienced players, the bigger names, the marquee names that he can depend on to turn up and get the most out of the rookies that he can depend on.”
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