A DECADE on from becoming a major champion for the first time – and nine years removed from a second successive victory in the world’s oldest and most important event – Padraig Harrington will return to Royal Birkdale this month for the 146th Open Championship.
Inevitably, some things will be different for the now 45-year-old Irishman. Perhaps most poignantly, his long-time coach, the sadly departed Bob Torrance, will no longer take his place on the practice ground. His two boys, Patrick and Ciaran, are a lot bigger. And there are one or two more grey hairs on the Harrington head.
Apart from that though, Harrington is pretty much the same man who briefly dominated – three Grand Slam victories in the space of 13 months – the professional game at the highest-level back in 2007-08. And that is no bad thing. This genial Dubliner is one of the most likeable and approachable members of golf’s elite, an endearing mixture of geniality, civility and good humour in an age when the gap between the leading players and the rest of us has never been so broad.
You can add a degree of eccentricity to that combination. This is a man who convinced himself he had the wherewithal to win major titles after throwing one away. After finishing 5-5-5 (bogey-bogey-bogey) in the final round of the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot to lose by two shots, Harrington left the premises with what he calls “great peace of mind.”
“My game really was good enough,” he says. “And by Birkdale in 2008 I was bullet-proof.”
He needed to be. Paired with the nostalgic favourite in the final round – a then 53-year old Greg Norman – Harrington was at least superficially the villain of the piece.
“I had to block out all the sentimental stuff,” he continues. “I could feel the huge amount of support there was for Greg. I was shocked at how nice he was to me that day. I had played with him before, but he was such a gentleman. He could not have been more helpful or generous in the way he was.
“When he said, ‘good shot’ he meant it. He was genuinely happy that I won on the last. But he was that way all the way round. There are guys who are tough to play with. But he was the opposite. I couldn’t have looked for a better partner.”
So Harrington left the Lancashire links a two-time and soon-to-be three-time major champion. And a changed golfer. Before 2007, the three-time Walker Cupper – he turned pro only after gaining a university degree in accountancy – was a prolific runner-up; since then he has won almost every time he has had the opportunity to do so.
“In the last six years I’ve had six chances to win and taken them all,” he says. “I’m not getting into position like I used to. But when I do I read the situation well and understand myself. I have plenty of rules now to stop myself practicing.”
Ah yes, spending time on the range is something Harrington has been doing a lot less of in 2017. An operation to alleviate a trapped nerve in his neck saw him miss more than two months of competitive play earlier this year. So he had to find other things to do, one of which was pitching up at Augusta National as part of Britain’s Sky commentary team for the Masters. Not surprisingly for someone so keen on talking, this youngest of five brothers was a great success in that new role.
Oh, there is one other aspect of Harrington’s week that won’t change when he makes his return to Birkdale. When swing guru Pete Cowen stands behind the 15-time European Tour winner on the range, he won’t actually be doing anything substantive. Throughout his career, Harrington has never allowed anyone – not even Torrance – to coach him at a major championship.
“Bob would stand there and tell stories and jokes,” he says. “Butch Harmon is the same. He doesn’t coach at majors. He’s just there. He lightens the mood. And he says, ‘good shot’ a lot. I’ve asked him what he does with players. And all he does is a bit of this and a bit of that, superfluous stuff. He’s just chatting and not even watching them hit.”
One last thing. Never doubt, whatever happens at this Open Championship, Harrington’s ability to maintain perspective on golf and life. As an illustration, one moment from the last round in 2008 has stayed with him.
“I remember walking off a tee with my head down,” he says with a smile. “I must have looked a bit glum. Until I heard a Scouse voice shouting, ‘cheer up Paddy. I’ve got to go back to my plumbing job on Monday.’”
Perspective and personality – a winning combination.
“I REMEMBER WALKING OFF A TEE WITH MY HEAD DOWN. I MUST HAVE LOOKED A BIT GLUM. UNTIL I HEARD A SCOUSE VOICE SHOUTING, ‘CHEER UP PADDY. I’VE GOT TO GO BACK TO MY PLUMBING JOB ON MONDAY’.”