HUGGAN’S AL­LEY:

JOHH HUGGAN

Golf Australia - - NEWS -

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’.”

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