Padraig Harrington practices ahead of this week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, his first tournament start anywhere since March’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.||
By John Huggan
He should be in Northern Wisconsin. But instead Padraig Harrington is making do with Northern Ireland. Making his first competitive appearance since March’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, Europe’s Ryder Cup captain is in County Antrim, at the Galgorm Spa and Golf Resort for the European Tour’s Irish Open. Physically anyway. Understandably, however, Harrington’s mind was wandering—if only a little—a few thousand miles west to Whistling Straits, where the biennial contest between Europe and the United States was originally scheduled to be played this week.
In fact, since the July 8 announcement that the match had been postponed until next September, the three-time major champion owned up to not giving the whole thing much thought at all. Although he did admit to checking the weather forecast for Sheboygan (sunny and 70 degrees all week) and delving into the hypothetical. Understandable curiosity led him to identify who would have made the team via qualifying and who he might then have picked to round out his 12-man lineup. Not that he was giving anything away on that front.
“No one could have predicted any of this,” Harrington said. “But I came to terms with it a while back. In March/April we were working hard behind the scenes to try and get all the alternatives ready for what could have been. But by the time we reached the middle of May, I could see it wasn’t going to happen. There were so many complications behind the scenes, one option me being given 12 picks. But had I been handed eight, there would have been 732,000 combinations if choosing that many guys from 24. So when the match was actually postponed it was actually a relief.”
As for his own golf, Harrington was quick to play down any chance of him adding a second Irish Open victory to his 2007 triumph. For one thing, he isn’t 100 percent physically—“I’ve hit a lot of balls and pushed my body a bit too far”—and for another, after so long away from the game, he professed to be unsure of what to expect on a course that sounds a lot like last week’s U.S. Open, at least in terms of setup. In yesterday’s pro-am, Harrington winner of 31 events worldwide during his career, confessed to losing a ball in the long rough on each of his first three holes.
“I’m just not ready,” he said. “You never would be in your first event, but I’m going to give it a shot. Go out there and play, no expectations.”
In the longer term, however, Harrington remains optimistic regarding his prospects. He will turn 50 three weeks before the rescheduled Ryder Cup next year, but he retains one last ambition with regard to the European Tour, where he has won 15 times. He has an eye on becoming the oldest champion on the Old World circuit, a record (50 years and 133 days) currently held by Miguel Angel Jimenez.
“I like to think I’ll remain competitive for a few years yet,” said Harrington, who make his 26th consecutive appearance in his national Open but his first start in front of no spectators. “I won’t be one who turns up just to miss the cut. I hit the ball farther than I have ever done. So I’m not giving up too much too the young lads out here. Being the oldest winner on tour is a nice goal for me.”
Inevitably too, Harrington was asked about what he had witnessed at Winged Foot. There in 2006, the Irishman made bogey each of the last three holes to finish two shots behind eventual champion Geoff Ogilvy. As ever, Harrington had a view, and a “solution” to what many see as a problem in the elite game going forward, pointing out that Bryson DeChambeau won’t play as well as he did in becoming U.S. Open champion every week.
“The leading players, those who are winning majors, nearly always have an advantage off the tee,” he said. “So it is nothing new what Bryson is doing. Plus, I’m sure Rory [McIlroy] hit as many drives as Bryson did last week. So, while what he did is a big change in the minds of people, if you haven’t seen this coming you’re blind. It’s what Rory did, what Dustin Johnson did, what Tiger [Woods] did, what Greg Norman did and what Jack [Nicklaus] did. To play this game as well as they did you have to great off the tee. It’s always been that way. And 10 years from now, guys like Bryson will be a dime a dozen. Right now, he is running the 100 meters at maybe 12 seconds. So he’s still got 20-percent more in the tank.”
As for trying to keep him from going to far, Harrington had thoughts there, too. “They have definitely gone down the wrong road in building courses to compete with these guys,” he said. “If you want to build a course that suits straight-hitter, you have to build one where they can hit 54 fairways out of 54. That’s where their advantage will come from. Last week, even the straight hitters couldn’t hit the fairways. Instead, what you need are firm, fast greens and short, ‘flier’ rough. But the last thing any of us wants to play is a ‘tricked-up’ course. Putting pins on slopes is no fun for anybody.”