Life in the old dog yet as Har­ring­ton sets sights on tri­umph of the ages

Dubliner de­ter­mined to end De Vi­cenzo’s 50-year reign as old­est Open cham­pion

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - DER­MOT GILLEECE

WITH cur­rent fit­ness lev­els, su­pe­rior equip­ment and coach­ing skills, it comes as some­thing of a shock that the old­est win­ner of the Open Cham­pi­onship in mod­ern times did his thing 50 years ago. That was when Roberto de Vi­cenzo cap­tured the ti­tle at Hoy­lake at the mod­er­ately ma­ture age of 44 years and 93 days.

Nat­u­rally, Pádraig Har­ring­ton has his own views on the mat­ter. “Some­body will beat that tar­get, that’s for sure,” he said. Then those amaz­ing eyes lit up as he de­clared: “I’m go­ing to be the one. It’s go­ing to be me, me, me.”

Har­ring­ton was at Dun Laoghaire Golf Club last week at a spe­cial gath­er­ing or­gan­ised by the Royal and An­cient to flag the 146th Open at Royal Birk­dale on July 20-23. Those who have been hi­ber­nat­ing for the last decade may need re­mind­ing that the Dubliner re­tained the ti­tle on this cel­e­brated Lan­cashire duneland back in 2008.

His stand-out shot from that tri­umph, of course, was a glo­ri­ous five-wood of 273 yards on the par-five 71st hole. The down­hill lie en­sured a low tra­jec­tory which would cheat the wind and Har­ring­ton’s per­fect con­tact il­lus­trated the heights to which he had risen as a master of his craft, send­ing the ball to rest three feet above the pin.

“I had just hit the five-wood off the tee,” he re­called. “I was un­break­able at that mo­ment, and it was my favourite club. As much as it was a great shot, I was in a great place [men­tally] to hit it.”

The green has since been slightly repo­si­tioned and its con­tours soft­ened, but where is the club? I tracked it down at Royal Birk­dale, where I was in­formed that two Har­ring­ton clubs are on dis­play in a glass case in the club­house (see pic­ture). One car­ries the in­scrip­tion: “Wil­son Staff lob wedge. Do­nated by Padraig Har­ring­ton 2008 Open Cham­pion.” Be­neath it is the fa­mous fair­way wood with the mes­sage: “Wil­son Staff 5 wood on loan from Padraig Har­ring­ton. This club was used by Padraig Har­ring­ton for his sec­ond shot on the 71st hole to set up an ea­gle and go on to win the Cham­pi­onship.” Its head-cover lies on the bot­tom of the case.

While the wedge was “do­nated”, I thought it in­ter­est­ing that the wood was “on loan”. Which is no more than one would ex­pect with such a pre­cious im­ple­ment.

Even in the au­tumn of a sparkling ca­reer, Har­ring­ton re­mains end­lessly fas­ci­nat­ing. For in­stance, when he talked about his rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Ser­gio Gar­cia, whom he had de­scribed as “a very sore loser” in the wake of the Spa­niard’s Mas­ters tri­umph, there was no men­tion of an apol­ogy.

“I cer­tainly felt I had to ex­plain my­self, no doubt about it,” he ac­knowl­edged.

Then he added: “Look, at the end of the day, I think it’s been great. It’s worked out so much for the bet­ter. The sit­u­a­tion prob­a­bly had to be dealt with and it was dealt with, and my­self and Ser­gio are on a much bet­ter foot­ing than we’ve ever been.”

Later, I showed Har­ring­ton a list of the 10 old­est win­ners of Ma­jor cham­pi­onships, headed by Julius Boros, who cap­tured the 1968 PGA at the age of 48 years, four months and 18 days. Next comes Old Tom Mor­ris, who was aged 46 years and 99 days when win­ning the 1867 Open, though Har­ring­ton agreed that De Vi­cenzo was more rel­e­vant to the mod­ern game.

“Roberto would have been helped greatly by how far he hit the ball,” said the Dubliner with sur­pris­ing in­sight. “Look what he did at St An­drews be­fore the 2000 Open when he was nearly 80.”

This was a ref­er­ence to the four-hole cel­e­bra­tion of cham­pi­ons on the Wed­nes­day, when the 77-year-old Ar­gen­tinian fin­ished green-high with his drive into the wind at the 357-yard 18th. Where­upon his ad­mir­ing play­ing part­ner, Jack Nick­laus, was moved to re­mark: “He said on the tee that was what he was go­ing to do, and he did it.”

Still, Har­ring­ton takes the view that longevity in golf is more of a mental than a phys­i­cal chal­lenge. Mind you, I re­mem­ber Christy O’Con­nor say­ing that the two things which di­min­ish most no­tice­ably with age are con­cen­tra­tion and strength in the legs.

“Golf is not meant to be fair,” the Dubliner went on. “It’s a chal­lenge that’s de­signed to test your mental re­solve. And the Open is the big­gest mental chal­lenge of all, in the way it cre­ates trep­i­da­tion and ex­cite­ment.”

He con­tin­ued: “With age, a player loses his but­ter­flies, his adren­a­line and that sense of ex­cite­ment. Which means he also loses a lit­tle bit of the spark for the big oc­ca­sion.

He won’t pre­pare as he once did, so his game slips a lit­tle. Men­tally he be­comes a lit­tle afraid. He loses the guts for it. That’s clearly an is­sue.

“In terms of keep­ing up phys­i­cally, how­ever, links ter­rain is the great equaliser. Tom Wat­son, for in­stance, never had a prob­lem with dis­tance. Ex­pe­ri­ence and shot-mak­ing be­came the key.

“I played the first two rounds of the 2003 Mas­ters with Wat­son, when him­self and his cad­die, Bruce Ed­wards, were to­gether at Au­gusta for the last time. Some of the shots he hit were phe­nom­e­nal, sim­ply be­cause he was play­ing for Bruce. He was in­ter­ested.” Which made Har­ring­ton a rapt ob­server at Turn­berry in 2009 when Wat­son went within a whisker of cap­tur­ing the ti­tle, two months short of his 60th birthday. “Once Tom got him­self into con­tention, the ex­cite­ment car­ried him along,” he said. “And that eight­iron run­ning through the green on the last was prob­a­bly the un­luck­i­est shot I’ve ever seen in golf.

“It was a beau­ti­ful shot, hit ex­actly as he wanted it, but where there are up­slopes on both sides of that green, there’s an in­cline in the mid­dle, which is where the ball hit. Even at that, I’ll never know how it over­shot the tar­get.

“Yet I be­lieve he would still have got down in two had the cush­ion of a play-off not been in the back of his mind. He was sucked into be­liev­ing that a play-off was OK, which af­fected his fo­cus.”

While we talked, I could see the three­inch scar to the left-front of his neck where he had re­cent surgery for a trapped nerve be­tween the C6 and C7 ver­te­brae. With re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gress­ing favourably, he ex­pects to be back in tour­na­ment ac­tion in the BMW/PGA Cham­pi­onship be­gin­ning at Went­worth on May 25.

If he’s in a hurry — and I sus­pect he is — Har­ring­ton would be 45 years, 10 months and 23 days were he to set a mod­ern record for the Open next July. “Even if Wat­son hadn’t got so close, I would still back my­self to do it,” he said. “I’m the guy who wanted to win the Au­gusta Par-3 Tour­na­ment and the Mas­ters in the same year, sim­ply be­cause it had never been done. I’ve al­ways thought that way.”

The only cloud on his hori­zon is an awareness that most lead­ing play­ers are lim­ited to about 20 pro­duc­tive years on tour, be­cause of the mental stress in­volved. This has cer­tainly been true of such lu­mi­nar­ies as Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Nick Faldo and Seve Balles­teros, a fact to which Har­ring­ton, now in his 22nd year, of­ten refers.

Yet he in­sisted: “I have to be­lieve I’m dif­fer­ent. And prov­ing ev­ery­body else wrong would give me the great­est sense of achieve­ment.”

So the quest be­gins. Look out Roberto! A fa­mously de­ter­mined Dubliner is chas­ing your place in the sun.

Padraig Har­ring­ton still be­lieves he can bag an­other Ma­jor

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