AUGUSTA, Ga. Suddenly, the world hangs on Padraig Harrington's every word - or at least, the world in which Paddy walks. By winning three major golf championships in two years, he has clearly demonstrated he Knows Something, whatever that elusive Something is, and folks are anxious to learn his secrets.
He has talked, he reports, to the Dublin football team (soccer to us) and the Irish rugby team, and they were “equally enthusiastic about what I had to say.” Alas, this enthusiasm didn't necessarily translate into victory. “The Dublin team went out and lost to a very low-ranked team the following week,” he says, “[but] the Irish rugby team have had some success. So I'm at 50-50 at this stage. The next one could be pivotal.”
It's Masters week at Augusta National, and Tiger Woods and his reconstituted left knee are attracting most of the attention. But the man with the most at stake here is Harrington, the 37-year-old Irishman who's halfway to a Grand Slam of his own creation. He took the last two majors last year - his second consecutive British Open and then the PGA - while Tiger was lying on a couch with an ice pack, and he wouldn't mind making it three straight by stealing off with a green jacket.
Paddy decked out in green: What a photo op that would be.
And it's hardly far-fetched. Harrington has played well at Augusta in the past - a tie for fifth a year ago, a tie for seventh the year before that, another tie for fifth in 2002. He's been circling the trophy; he just hasn't reached out and grabbed it. The same could be said of the next major, U.S. Open, where he has four top 10s in this decade. What would it register on the Richter scale, do you suppose, if HE matched Tiger's feat of four in a row?
Some of his buddies kid him about it. Lee Westwood came up to him the other day and said: “What's all this about the Paddy Slam? Are you startin' up wrestlin'?”
Actually, Harrington will tell you, the wrestlin' he does is mostly with himself. “I'm always competing with myself,” he says. “I'm trying to better myself all the time.” Ask him whether he feels he has a rivalry going with Woods, and he replies he doesn't look at the game that way, doesn't “believe in trying to compete against one individual.” The real battle, for him, is against the Inner Paddy and “trying to get the best performance out of me.”
Earlier in his career, when he toiled mostly on the European Tour, the Inner Paddy tended to wobble a bit as he neared the finish line. In a three-year stretch from 1999 to 2001, he had three victories… and 13 seconds. Some players, very good players, never escape that pattern. (Stewart Cink comes to mind.) But Harrington has been able to take the next step - as he showed last year with his nerveless performances down the stretch at Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills.
“Winning is a habit,” he says, “and some people have that habit and have no understanding of losing. I have plenty of understanding of losing, and I've had to work my way through some pretty miserable [losses]. I think I had a record there for number of second places. It was amazing. It was used nearly as a stick to beat me with. [But] you work your way through that, and it gives you tremendous experience. … You learn from losing. You don't really learn from winning.”
Or as Gary Player put it the other day: “When you finish second, only your wife and your dog remember it. That's if you've got a good wife and a good dog.”
People will remember Harrington now. They'll remember him facing down Sergio Garcia in the '07 Open playoff. They'll remember him at last year's Open hitting that ridiculous 5-wood to four feet on 17 to clinch it. They'll remember him for being the first European in more than a century to win back-to-back claret jugs. They'll remember his 66-66 finish in the '08 PGA. They'll remember him for all the things a golfer wants to be remembered for.
And now the Masters - another opportunity to be remembered - awaits. His game, following a typically lengthy winter break, isn't quite where he hoped it would be at this stage, but “the last two weeks have been encouraging,” he says. He was on the periphery of contention at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, settling for a tie for 11th, and he was on the leader board Sunday at Houston until the wind undid him.
“I lost my patience,” he says. “I'm glad I did it last Sunday and not this [coming] Sunday.”
Harrington has reached that point, that rare status in sports, where nothing is thought to be beyond him, where no accomplishment would be any great surprise. It's no longer a case of teeing it up in majors and thinking, “If I get lucky this week, I might win,” he says. He knows now that “if I prepare right… and go out and play my golf, it's possible for me to win and to be in control of me winning.”
And if he keeps doing it, well, maybe the Dublin footballers will invite him back to make another speech, one that will spur them to victory this time. Knowing Harrington, he'd probably like a mulligan. As we've seen through the years, through all the near misses, the man is more than happy to work at things until he gets them right.
Dan Daly has been writing about sports for the Washington Times since 1982. He has won numerous national and local awards, appears regularly in NFL Films’ historical features and is the co-author of “The Pro Football Chronicle,” a decade-by-decade history of the game. Follow Dan on Twitter at @dandalyonsports –- or e-mail him at email@example.com.
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