John Duggan writes that on the week of the US PGA Championship, it's worth paying homage to Padraig Harrington's groundbreaking win...
"I did my best to be ready for the week but clearly I'm not. What can I say. The harder I tried the worse it got. I haven't got the focus this week. I'm just not with it." Padraig Harrington, speaking after day two of the 2008 US PGA Championship in Michigan.
Less than three weeks after winning the oldest major in golf, the Open Championship, for the second year in a row, Ireland's Padraig Harrington was almost waving the white flag. He'd just carded a 74 to lie five over par at the halfway stage at Oakland Hills, six shots off the lead. He frankly told reporters that he 'couldn't get off the golf course quick enough'.
Two days later the Dubliner was raising the Wanamaker Trophy in front of the world's press, the first European to win the US PGA since Tommy Armour back in 1930, a gap of 78 years. Thumbing through the records of the US Open Championship, only one European had won it between 1927 and 2008 - England's Tony Jacklin in 1969. So in 153 US PGA or US Open championships contested between Tommy Armour and Harrington, there was only one European winner. There was Seve's breakthrough at the Masters in 1980 and Bernhard and Sandy and Nick and Woosie and Olly after that and the Ryder Cup successes, but European golfers struggled in the other two American majors. Really struggled.
They toiled because it was difficult to get to play in them for a long time in the era before the PGA Tour became a welcoming global circuit after Tiger Woods changed golf, but also because the target golf courses with tree-lined fairways and a premium on a certain type of shot-making favoured the Americans who played on those courses every week.
I have always believed that Irish golf experienced its golden age over two decades based upon milestones. Hosting the World Golf Championship in 2002 at Mount Juliet was huge, and Tiger winning it was the dream result. Europe's procession over the USA at the 2006 Ryder Cup at the K Club was tremendously significant. It's an intangible argument, but I don't think Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Shane Lowry would have won the majors in the manner they did, or Paul McGinley would have captained a winning Ryder Cup team so brilliantly without the achievements of Harrington. Padraig Harrington put Irish golf on the map with three major wins in 13 months and at the US PGA he did it in a way that was truly inspiring.
One could make the case that Harrington had the luck of the Irish in winning the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie as he found the Barry Burn twice and Spain's Sergio Garcia failed to close the door, but Harrington grabbed the claret jug with both hands once he was presented with a second chance. His win at Birkdale in 2008 was dominant and comfortable, so to produce consecutive rounds of 66 at Oakland Hills to claim the PGA was evidence of a sportsman closing the deal on a major stage while not playing at his best. It was a victory built on determination and courage to find something deep inside of himself and fight back.
Do you remember where you were when Harrington won that US PGA? I remember wandering into a bar in Ranelagh in South Dublin, not too far from where Harrington is from - to watch it. One could sense from an undercurrent of tension inside the bar that people knew this was 'on', that Padraig had a real chance in the final round. It was a battle for supremacy between Harrington and Garcia yet again, with American Ben Curtis playing a supporting role.
Yet to win a major at that stage, Garcia made a blinding start, going three-under par for his first three holes and he led for much of the final round. Playing with Garcia, Harrington then made his move on the back nine, picking up three shots in four holes. Teeing off at the 14th, Harrington and Garcia were tied for the lead at 3 under, a shot ahead of Curtis.
Harrington would bogey 14, but Garcia missed a chance to go 4 under on 15. His putter was cold and it kept Harrington alive. 16 was critical. Garcia hit it in the water with his approach and Harrington made a clutch putt for par. They were level with Curtis, but the American's race was soon run as he would bogey 17. In true match play style, Harrington sent his approach to 10 feet on 17 and Garcia's iron went inside him. Harrington sunk the putt and Garcia missed. A par would probably do it at the last for Harrington.
One can look at all the stats on a page and know the strokes gained statistics backwards, but they don't tell the full story of how a competitor needs to embrace pressure in a major championship and transform that pressure into a positive outcome. Jack Nicklaus knew that the majors were the easiest tournaments to win because a lot of the field didn't have the mental strength to finish the job.
Harrington had this expression on his face when in the zone, a look of wild-eyed seriousness, matching his distinctive purposeful walk. One could see that look of deep concentration as he played his tee shot on 18, which missed the fairway. His second shot found a patch of rough around 140 yards from the pin. From there, he proceeded to find the green, just over 15 feet from the cup. Garcia would be silenced if Harrington made it and Padraig did, delivering a memorable fist pump as the double breaking putt weaved its way to the hole, the ball disappearing into the cup.
Here was a man feeding off what it was like to be 'in the arena' of elite-level sport and surfing the wave to be the best golfer in the world that day. How did he do it? He spoke afterwards about the necessity to be properly hydrated after the first two rounds and getting through each stage of the tournament, but it was probably a cocktail of willpower, experience and adrenaline that allowed him to smash through. It was good enough for Harrington to reach number three in the rankings behind Tiger and Phil Mickelson. It was the reward for a steely mental toughness and an outstanding work ethic as a professional, as he surpassed players who had at least as much or more natural talent than him.
So as we wait for the gifted McIlroy to win a fifth major, perhaps at this week's US PGA, it's worth appreciating everything Harrington has done to make us proud Irish sports fans.
Padraig Harrington turns 50 this year and I really hope he captains Europe to beat the USA at the Ryder Cup in Wisconsin in September. One can guarantee he will leave no stone unturned in his preparations and execution. He's a winner.