For all the hand-wringing within golf surrounding the absenteeism from the Olympics of the highest ranked players in the men’s game, there are plenty of grateful replacements delighted to fly the flag for their sport and embrace the spirit of the Games in Rio this week.
None is more appreciative than Ireland’s three-time major champion Pádraig Harrington, who would rank an Olympic gold medal as highly as his 2008 PGA Championship win or either of his Open victories in 2007 and ‘08.
Listening to Harrington, 44, wax lyrical about his desire to become an Irish Olympian is a welcome antidote to the ongoing debate surrounding the withdrawal of the men’s top four in the world rankings and many more besides over concerns regarding security and the Zika virus.
Harrington, an ambassador for the R&A, one of the sport’s governing bodies and a custodian of its Rules of Golf, was part of the delegation that lobbied the International Olympic Committee in 2009 for the reintroduction of it to the Summer Games roster for the first time since 1904.
Yet his fall from the pinnacle of the game in recent years meant his groundwork was merely paving the way for the current generation of 20-somethings.
Events have worked in his favour though, with Rory McIlroy, Shane Lowry, and Graeme McDowell all opting against representing Ireland in Rio when the men’s golf tournament gets under way at Riserva do Marapendi, leaving Dubliner Harrington and West Waterford’s Seamus Power as the next-ranked players to step into the breach.
“I’m so lucky to be in there,” Harrington said as he completed his final round at the PGA Championship in New Jersey, having scored a tie for 13th place, his best finish in a major since 2012.
“Guys pulled out, to my benefit big time, I’m thrilled that I am going, I am actually a little nervous, I don’t want anything to happen between now and then, I don’t want to get injured or anything like that.
“I want to be an Olympic athlete and clearly I am now at the form that I can actually go on and win it.
“My preparations, it’s all about getting that right, mentally I think I have it where I need it to be to perform.”
Harrington remained in America last week to play a PGA Tour event, the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, before heading down to Rio on Sunday to begin practice on the new Gil Hanse-designed course either Monday or Tuesday.
And as he explained, he was not flying solo, nor planning on making a swift exit once his 72-hole strokeplay event is over.
“Whole family are going. There are six of us going down there, so it’s a big week. I’m staying for the extra week.
“This is very unusual for me, even if I’m not in the FedExCup, I normally come back and would play Wyndham, but I think so much of the Olympics, I’m going to take a week’s holiday and go to a number of events.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to really have a great week’s holiday the second week.
“The first week will be all business but hopefully the second week we’ll have a good week.”
The Harrington family’s itinerary for week two at the Games is going to be hectic with the golfer unable to keep track of all the tickets he has snagged, although track and field will be a must-see.
“It’s huge for me. I’m really keen on it. The whole family are keen on it. We sat in Thursday night (during the PGA Championship) watching some of the highlights of the Diamond League from Europe.
“It’s really great fun watching all those sports.
“The pain of losing is exceptional. The joy of winning, it’s right there on the line.
“So I’d watch anything in those circumstances and obviously the Olympics is the pinnacle of it all being on the line, you get one chance and that’s it.
“Table tennis, gymnastics, diving, velodrome. Boxing, I’m sure I’m missing out on one or two. This is all the second week. So I’m trying to do two things a day the second week.”
Maybe even catching the women’s golf event, which follows the men’s and has Stephanie Meadow and leading world amateur star Leona Maguire representing Ireland.
“If one of the Irish girls was going well I’d definitely go back, 100%. I’d be interested in that.
“In general I’m looking to see the sports that I don’t know, that I don’t know much about, well, I do know a bit about, but the likes of the velodrome and the cycling looks like it would be great fun to go to that.
“Obviously the boxing, we’re hoping for more than one medal in the boxing. From an Irish perspective, I think that’s our best chance of winning.”
In a 60-man field with several big guns missing and an unfamiliar but apparently windy course in Rio, Harrington’s own chances are better than slim.
“He will also be keeping an eye on Seamus Power, 29, whose successful campaign on the Web.com Tour, the PGA Tour’s feeder circuit, means he is virtually assured his card for the main event next season.
“I don’t know him at all.
“I know what he’s done. I know he played golf with Shane Lowry growing up and he’s obviously a very good player. He’s got a card for next year. I’d love to say I was his age.”
Harrington added he would be cheering Power on and offering advice but if push came to shove, well...
“I’d be hoping that the two of us have a chance coming down the last nine holes and at that stage, it’s all for yourself, but up until that point, I’d be delighted if the two of us are five shots clear of the field on Sunday.”
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