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
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