Pádraig Harrington is no longer searching for ‘the secret’ in the autumn of a glorious career, but he remains just a little bitter nobody told him where his ball was at St Andrews this year, writes Brian Keogh.
Pádraig Harrington might be living the autumn years of a storied career but the current Honda Classic champion still loves the game and remains as fascinated by the changing golf scene as any fan.
The gradual fading away of Harrington’s generation — Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Retief Goosen are just a few of the names that spring to mind — is coinciding with the emergence of the new Big Three, or Big Five if you agree with the Dubliner’s take on the current scene.
Yes, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, and Rory McIlroy are the three at the top of the world rankings. But Harrington sees Bubba Watson and especially Rickie Fowler as another pair of golfers capable of “lapping a field”, which is his barometer of greatness in the increasingly competitive modern game when so many players can win in a given week.
What gave him even more hope from 2015 wasn’t just his own performance in The Open, where he was leading until he lost a ball on the sixth on Sunday, but the reminder in the Honda Classic (and via other wins for Graeme McDowell and Rory McIroy) that you can hit seemingly disastrous shots coming down the stretch and still win.
No wonder he’s looking forward to another year on tour.
Recovering nicely from knee surgery, Harrington is scheduled to resume hostilities with the game in Kapalua on January 7, when he plays the Hyundai Tournament of Champions for the first time and remains on in Hawaii for the following week’s Sony Open.
The expected arrival of El Niño — “They know it’s coming because of the temperature of the ocean right now” — has made him rethink his early season schedule to avoid at least some of the bad West Coast weather.
By dropping the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, he will resume in February with the Waste Management Phoenix Open, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and the Northern Trust Open alongside Rory McIlroy at Riviera in LA, before heading to Florida to defend his Honda Classic on his way home.
At the age of 44, and ranked 142nd in the world, the three-time major winner knows that it will be “almost impossible” to qualify for Darren Clarke’s Ryder Cup team without doing something very special indeed.
Unless he wins big early, his major championship activities may well be reduced to The Open at Royal Troon and the US PGA at Baltusrol while qualifying for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro may require winning the Masters, if he qualifies, or a third Claret Jug.
With three major trophies on his kitchen table, Harrington is at peace with the world. He knows he’s had the 20-year maximum anyone can expect from a tour career and while he admits his innocence is gone and he no longer believes he’s going to get up tomorrow and discover “the secret”, he still loves the game.
Capable of playing the roles of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come to this reporter’s Ebenezer Scrooge for a golfing Christmas Carol, Harrington is surprising nobody when he mentions Fowler and two-time Masters winner Watson as serious rivals for the so-called big three of Spieth, Day and McIlroy.
“I think Rickie Fowler is the real deal,” he says. “But for me to say he is the one to watch, or a one to watch, is really a bit late because the horse has bolted at this stage. I think everybody know that.
“I just like his general demeanour. His attitude. For me, he has the game in the right place. Mentally he has showed he can play well under pressure and physically he has the game.
“For a guy who is under an awful lot of media pressure, he compartmentalises the game very well mentally and I think it will lead to bigger and better things.
“He could easily be in that top three. Physically he has got a great game and his head is in the right place. So it is silly to count those top three when there is Rickie and Bubba Watson. And this is the difference from the Tiger era.
“When Tiger turned up with his A game, he dominated the field. Now there are probably four guys and a few fringe players on top of that, who are going to dominate the field if they turn up with their A games.”
Watch Sky Sports early next year and there will be major hype surrounding the meeting of Spieth and McIlroy in Abu Dhabi. Yet Harrington reckons it’s unlikely we will see both men produce their best stuff in the same week.
“It would be fascinating to watch all these guys with their A game but what we are seeing more and more, because of the strength in depth, is A games winning and nothing else.
“Somebody is going to play lights out every week, whereas Tiger was able to win with his B game. I am not saying these guys don’t have good B games, but the likelihood is that every week, somebody else is going to have their A game.
“People want to see Rory v Jordan on their A game but the chances of that happening in the same week are so slim. This is what has happened. Jordan and Rory have proved they can lap fields. Jason Day has proved it. Tiger was able to do that. Bubba has lapped fields.
“But apart from them? Henrik Stenson has got a game but it’s been a long time since he lapped a field. Dustin Johnson should be able to do it, but again he hasn’t either.”
Standards are rising all the time and that goes for Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke, who Harrington believes faces a very difficult task at Hazeltine in September following Paul McGinley’s brilliance at Gleneagles in 2014.
“I think he has got a tough act to follow,” Harrington says of Clarke. “The standard has been set by Paul and everyone has to live up to that now. It is tough to go and win in the States. This US team are going to be motivated. It is a tough job. I am not saying he cannot win and I hope to be there myself. It is just not an easy one at all.”
For Harrington to win a seventh Ryder Cup cap is a long shot but he’s not giving up all hope of challenging for another major, having led The Open after 59 holes this year only to lose a ball in gorse right of the sixth on the Old Course at St Andrews.
“I still wonder if I am the only guy who was leading in the last round of the Open to lose a golf ball,” he says, his tone rising.
“Gary Evans wasn’t leading at Muirfield in 2002, I don’t think so anyhow. What was amazing was that everyone watching on TV knew where it was.
“You were looking in the wrong place,” they told me later in texts and messages.”
He jokes: “Am I bitter? Yes. It’s phenomenal to think that any player leading that tournament, the TV didn’t tell them. Every time you turn on the TV, they are saying, oh yeah, you are looking in the wrong place, look over here.”
He’s checked the rules of golf and knows he can use his mobile phone to receive information on the whereabouts of his ball, even if it might mean a European Tour fine for improper use of a phone during a round.
Who knows how many more chances he will get to win a major but he’s not going to stop trying, even if he’s lost something of his boyish innocence over the years.
“I have done far more than I ever thought I would in the game so it is far harder for me to stay, not motivated, it is not that. I am keen or excited to do the work. Well… maybe it is the excitement, that’s the one thing that is missing. It is just the way it is. I have to find a way around it.”
Harrington loves trying to work out what makes golfers tick and if amateurs at home can learn anything from 2015, it’s that even a seemingly catastrophic mistake is not necessarily definitive.
“This is my insight into golf for all the amateurs at home reading newspapers and watching golf TV, especially the good amateurs,” he says. “I won Honda hitting it in the water on the 71st hole. Double bogey. Effectively hitting it out of bounds. Had to tee it up again.
“Normally you would think you can’t win a tournament doing that. Graeme McDowell wins in Mexico hitting it OB twice on the first hole. Normally, if an amateur does that on the first hole, their week is over.
“Then Rory hit it in the water on the 71st hole in Dubai and won. So we are all led to believe that you can’t hit disaster shots. But it’s not true. You can.
“You might not get away with it but you can recover. The recovery is more important than hitting a bad shot. That’s what I am saying. In those three wins, it wasn’t because of perfection, it was about the ability to come back after a mishap.”
I suggest calling this the ’Carnoustie Theory’ and Harrington agrees. As the ultimate golfing anorak, he’s as fascinated by the mental game as he is the physical, which is why he finds Spieth such a compelling character.
“What Jordan has is the X factor (mentally), which is more important than anything else,” Harrington says. “You can’t pigeonhole him. You can’t label him like you can label Rory or Bubba as great drivers of the ball.
“Jordan has something there on the mental side that isn’t easy to quantify. You can’t see it. It is underneath. It is not on the surface. He seems to be a standout putter and yes he is a really good putter. But I can tell you, he does an awful lot more good things than that.
“He is an excellent chipper. He is a good driver of the ball. He hits great iron shots. The reality is that the X factor is the most important thing he has. Belief. The mental side.
“There is just something special about who he is. And that is what makes him.”
Harrington sees Spieth’s biggest challenge being the media hype more than McIlroy or Day or Fowler.
“Jordan is going to be far more analysed than any other player ever because everyone is trying to figure him out.” Ignoring the media and doing your own thing is a Harrington speciality and he recommends that McIlroy and Shane Lowry do the same as they chase their goals in 2016.
He sees McIlroy’s win in Dubai at the end of the year as a sign that the Holywood star is ready to start winning without firing on all cylinders from start to finish.
But he looks at Lowry’s bid to make Clarke’s Ryder Cup team via the World Points List as a major challenge, especially as he adjusts to life in the US where it is tough to win as “there are dozens of players who are capable of taking a lead and running with it during the week when they are playing well.”
“It is not easy to make the Ryder Cup team,” Harrington says of Lowry’s chances. “Graeme has done himself the world of good with his two performances at the end of the year.
“For myself to make the Ryder Cup team would be a long shot but Shane should make it and Graeme has given himself a great base to work from.
“The reality is that everybody needs to play well going forward because there are not that many spots in that World Points List. When you consider two or three guys are going to have super years. Everyone else is playing for just one or two spots.”
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