x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Harrington back enjoying the ride

The Irishman's ambitions burn as brightly as ever as he prepares to defend his US PGA title.

Padraig Harrington, playing an approach shot during the final round at Firestone, says he would relish another face-off with Tiger Woods.
Padraig Harrington, playing an approach shot during the final round at Firestone, says he would relish another face-off with Tiger Woods.

While Seve Ballesteros, Sandy Lyle, Nick Faldo, Jose-Maria Olazabal, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam won the Masters 11 times between them from 1980 to 1999 - added to Tony Jacklin's victory in the 1970 US Open - for 92 years the US PGA Championship was the one American major to elude Europe's golfers. Then Ireland's Padraig Harrington triumphed at Oakland Hills, Michigan 12 months ago to prove all things are possible.

True, Scotland-born American Tommy Armour's name had been engraved on the Wannamaker Trophy in 1930, but he was playing under the Stars and Stripes by then. Why was it that Europe had such a dismal record in the event? "There's no single reason, more like a number of factors," says green jacket winner Lyle. "Whereas the Masters is played in the early spring in Georgia when even if the sun shines then playing golf is a pleasure. Walking on to the first tee at Hazeltine in Minnesota this week will be like opening the door of an oven; the sweat will flow and it will be decidedly uncomfortable out there.

"Secondly, Augusta is an entirely different type of course to those chosen for the US PGA championships. At Augusta you have those welcoming wide fairways and very light rough, in contrast, Hazeltine will come with very narrow landing areas off the tee and savage rough, coupled with the searing heat, 18 holes of golf in those conditions can by very hard work, indeed. "Thirdly, a lot of Europeans simply prepare better for the Masters than the PGA. Come March and April on the US Tour you have about half-a-dozen tournaments including the Tournament Players' Championship in the weeks before the Masters at a time when there are some fairly low-key events over here. So by the time they pitch up at Augusta, they're nicely in the groove. But straight after the Masters, boom, they fly home to rejoin the European Tour then, suddenly, the US PGA comes round before they've had time for any real preparation. Padraig's magnificent achievement bucked the trend."

Prior to his stunning return to form in the Bridgeton Invitational, since winning the British Open and PGA titles in 2008, Harrington had been in the doldrums, winning half a point for Europe in their Ryder Cup humiliation at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky, while slipping from third to 17th in the world rankings after missing six cuts out of seven in May and June. "As seasons go, this one has been pretty much of a wash out so far," said Harrington before taking Tiger Woods to the wire at the Firestone Country Club in Ohio.

Having tinkered with his swing under coach Bob Torrance [father of Sam], Harrington may have been "bitterly disappointed" he surrendered the Claret Jug without a whimper at Turnberry - where he finished a distant 65th behind the new British Open champion Stewart Cink - but the fires of ambition burn as fiercely as ever. "I'm far better prepared for Hazeltine than I was for Turnberry. I know I will win more majors."

Such is his towering talent and popularity in locker-rooms across the world, that no one will begrudge Harrington's return to the top of the leader board. Although he lost Sunday's head-to-head, Harrington harbours no fears about walking up the 18th on Sunday with Tiger at his shoulder and the US PGA title at stake. "Now, wouldn't that be nice? I've played with Tiger in the final rounds of the US Open and Masters and I have to say that sharing his company is a joy, a sheer joy." But what of the travelling circus that will accompany Tiger every step of Hazeltine's 7,674 yards? "The one thing you learn the first time you tee off with Tiger is how to cope with everything that's going on around him. Not least the army of photographers who want to dash off up the fairway the second he's played his shot.

"Tiger's skills are so awesome that you've got to get the man out of your head; you have to stick to your own game plan and not be drawn into trying to emulate whatever he's doing. But Tiger's very easy to play alongside; he's quick to say 'good shot', he's happy to chat, he's fun to be with. He's not the slightest bit arrogant and would never stoop to intimidating you or try to psyche you out. He's really very sporting out there on the golf course."

Still only 37, Harrington has one other "major" dream; to captain the European Ryder Cup team. "Hopefully, I have a few years left as a player but, yes, serving as captain would be right up there with winning the Open. Golf is such a selfish sport that it's a great feeling being part of a team. I'm not normally a party animal but on the night you've won the Ryder Cup? Well, what can I tell you? I've been fortunate to have won tournaments all round the world where I've 'celebrated' alone in my hotel room at 10 o'clock at night with an in-house movie and room-service dinner. Maybe Chelsea players feel that same team spirit every week but I think it gives golfers a special buzz because it doesn't happen very often."

Why has the Ryder Cup come to exert such fascination over competitors and fans alike? "The Ryder Cup is like riding a roller-coaster. When you're on the damn thing you're looking round thinking, 'What am I doing putting myself through this? Let me off right now!' You scream your head off throughout the ride but, of course, the further away you get from it you think, 'That was great - I can't wait to do it again'."

rphilip@thenational.ae