Padraig Harrington: Regrets, redemption and the Ryder Cup

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Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington on the postponement, his extra year in charge of Team Europe and his incredible life in golf.

Right about now, in a world without Covid-19, Padraig Harrington should be putting the finishing touches to his Ryder Cup Battle Plan for the clash with Steve Stricker's Team USA at Whistling Straits.

Ryder Cup captains Steve Stricker and Padraig Harrington.

In a sane and normal world, every one of the Irishman's waking hours would be focused on defending the Samuel Ryder trophy won in rampant fashion by Thomas Bjorn’s European heroes at Le Golf National two years ago.

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Sadly, it’s not a normal world right now and Covid-19 has pushed the 43rd Ryder Cup back to September 2021. Happily, the postponement gives Harrington more time to fine-tune his Ryder Cup strategy for the clash with Steve Stricker's

It also gave the three-time Major champion time to sit down with Today's Golfer and reflect on a lifetime in golf.

Rescheduling the Ryder Cup had to be done. It was never going to be an easy decision given the many factors that had to be taken into consideration, but I believe it is the right assessment given the unprecedented circumstances we are facing at this time.

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When you think of the Ryder Cup you think of the distinctive atmosphere generated by the spectators, such as around the first tee in Paris at Le Golf National two years ago. If that atmosphere could not be responsibly recreated at Whistling Straits in September, then it was correct that we all wait until it can be. 

Padraig Harrington hopes to get his hands on the Ryder Cup again at Whistling Straits.

An extra year will give me plenty of time to plan. I know, right now, that September 2021 feels like a long time away, but it will come around quickly and I guarantee that the European players and I will be ready when it does. I can’t wait.

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Going back through the years, the question I’m asked most often is ‘At what age did you start playing golf?’ I was four, but I don’t really remember it too well. I spent a lot of time as a small boy on the golf course at Stackstown, County Dublin, chasing rabbits or playing golf. The whole family worked on the course there, so it was with me from an early age.

Jack Nicklaus' 1986 Masters win influenced Padraig Harrington.

Watching Jack Nicklaus win the Masters in 1986 had a massive influence on me. The passion, the hype, the adrenalin, it all came out from the TV for me and into the sitting room. You felt as if you were there. I was 15, and it made a real impression on me that remains to this day.

I played a lot of other sports growing up. I played Gaelic football and captained the schools team. I was a solid full-back, but probably wasn’t physically fit enough to make it. And I played in goal in football. I had a trial for Dublin schoolboys as a goalkeeper. The trials involved playing for 15 minutes. In the first minute I received a back pass and let it through my legs. It was a blessing, really, but that finished my football career. I can remember standing there for 14 minutes, knowing it was pointless.

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I studied accountancy and passed all my exams, but I don’t think I would have ended up as an accountant. I think I’d have been more likely to have ended up in the business end of golf, managing a course or representing players.

Padraig Harrington won the Spanish Open in 1996.

I turned pro almost by accident. I saw the guys I was beating as an amateur turning pro, so I thought I should do the same. It wasn’t because I thought I was good enough. So I turned pro and I thought that if I did well, maybe I’d make a comfortable living on the tour.

I thought I’d keep my head down for a couple of years on tour, learn the ropes and see what I needed to do to improve. But then I won the Spanish Open in my first season and it all went crazy. It was just fairytale stuff. I just kept my head down and ran with it.

At one point I had 29 second-place finishes and it took me time to realise that I could play well on Sunday, but not score as well as I played. I remember putting them into seven or eight categories of how those second places panned out. They were actually completely different. But it was a good learning experience. I was up there competing and just learning my trade.

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It’s better in golf to be erratic than consistent. You’re better off having your wins than being consistent but never tasting victory. Winning is what you’re remembered for.

The problem you have in America is with statistics showing a player having six top 25s so far this year. That’s just horrible! Why would you be telling anybody you’ve had six top 25s? I wouldn’t play the game to have six top 25s: it’s either the chance of winning… or nothing.

Harrington in action at Winged foot in 2006.

I knew I had what it takes to win a Major when I blew it at Winged Foot in 2006. I had three pars to win the 2006 US Open and made three bogeys, but that made me realise I could win a Major.

Until then I had always believed I would need to get a bit lucky, or someone would have to hand it to me. Guys play their best golf when they get into a certain level of comfort about who they are. They need to be themselves and do their own thing.  I reached that stage of my life after 2006. I wasn’t turning up at Majors trying to get lucky; I was turning up trying to play my game.

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I have two Claret Jugs, but I don’t have a favourite. When you win your first Major there is nothing like it. It was incredibly exciting. But I was still left a little bit wanting because of the way I played the 72nd hole at Carnoustie [Harrington carded a double-bogey six to blow a one-shot lead].

That left a little doubt in my mind. Okay, I played great in the play-off and that justified it. But there was still a little bit of angst. It wasn’t quite how I imagined winning The Open as a kid. I had a bit of a disaster on the 18th and got a second chance. I have always been conscious of that.

Padraig Harrington celebrates Open victory No.1.

My second win, at Royal Birkdale, was incredibly satisfying. I was hitting the ball beautifully. I was swinging the club beautifully. I did everything that, as a kid of 15 years of age, you would want to do to win an Open Championship. That is how we all dream about winning an Open.

The first Major win was exciting and the second was satisfying, and it justified the first. And I’d say my third Major [the 2008 US PGA] was ugly – but fun.

The greatest shot I ever hit came shortly after one of the worst. At Carnoustie [in 2007] on the Sunday, I’d gone from being ‘in the zone’ all day to being completely out of it by the time we reached the final hole. When I hit my third shot, I had to go for the green after driving into the burn – I thought I had to make a five. I had 228 yards to go, the wind was against me and out of the right.

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I was trying to hit a 4-iron. I duffed it left but, thankfully, I didn’t hit it solid – if I had, the ball would have gone out of bounds. So, I end up in the hazard.

Walking up there was the only time on a golf course where I have ever wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I was embarrassed. I had choked. It was a disaster. If someone had come along at that moment and said, “OK Padraig, we can leave now,” I would have happily gone.

Harrington celebrates his second Open win.

I can categorically say my caddie won me that Major. I’ve never given up in my life. My caddie started into me with all the clichés – ‘this isn’t over yet’, ‘one shot at a time’, ‘play it out’. At first I wanted to hit him. And for about 50 yards I literally wanted to kill him. But in the next 50 yards, for whatever reason, his words started to get through. And in the last 50 yards – because I’d only hit it about 150 yards – I actually believed him.

The pitch shot I hit into the 18th was one of the greatest I have ever hit and it saved me. I hit it really hard and low, exactly like a 15-year-old kid would when showing off to his mates. Everyone in the crowd thought I had ‘knifed’ it. But I knew in my head it was going to spin when it landed.

I was just like a kid. And that is how much I was back in the zone. That is so hard to do. When you are in the zone and drop out, it is so hard to get back in. But I managed it and I stayed there throughout the play-off. I played great for the four holes and could say, yes I deserved to win.

Padraig Harrington and his caddie back at Carnoustie.

It’s easy to hit a great shot when you’re feeling good, but really hard to hit one when you’re feeling bad. Bob Torrance taught me that. I hit a good shot when I was down at Carnoustie. The following year I hit a good shot at Birkdale on the Sunday, the 5-wood to the 17th green. It was a great shot, but I felt bulletproof that day. That shot at Carnoustie was better because I was so far out of the zone leading up to it.

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Things happen for people to win Majors. I injured my wrist the week before Royal Birkdale, so I didn’t know if I was going to play in The Open. That meant Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday, all I did was walk the course and chip and putt.

Two big things stemmed from that. First, it removed all the expectation around me and reduced all the pressure. And second, towards the end of a very hard week I was the most rested player in the field. That was key because I’d twigged that so many of my second-place finishes were the result of me being burned out by Sunday.

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Stewart Cink is Padraig Harrington's "lucky omen".

I’m not superstitious, but I do believe in lucky omens. In all three of the Majors I’ve won, I’ve played at least one round with Stewart Cink. He’s a very lucky omen for me.

My reputation for practising too much was not unfair. I closed the range every day on tour and there were tournaments where they would leave two buckets of balls for me to use after everyone else had gone home. It wasn’t healthy – but it took me a while to understand that.

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My best trait is that I’m very optimistic. I always believe that I can win. Even when I went seven years without a win [between the PGA Championship in 2008 and the Honda Classic in 2015], I still believed that I could win.

I’m very optimistic by nature. If I have a bad day on the course I’m disappointed when I get back that evening. But the minute I get back out there the next day or practise the following week, I always look forward, not back.

Harrington returned to the winner's circle at the 2015 Honda Classic.

Winning is good for the ego. Everybody has an ego, every sportsman anyway. It doesn’t mean you have to show it, but everybody has it. The most important thing in sport is confidence and self-belief and wherever that comes from, it all works as long as you believe it.

Winning again was hard work, but only because I worked hard to get back into the winner's circle. I hadn’t lost any motivation or drive.

Being labelled a tinkerer is one of the great misnomers. I changed my swing between 2007-08, but did nothing different in 2009 that I wasn’t doing in 2006 and 2007. I’m constantly tinkering with that side of stuff, but it had nothing to do with the swing.

What went wrong with my game was my focus – I tried too hard and then if I hit a poor shot, I’d get down on myself over it and put too much emphasis on it. I was the opposite of being ‘free’ when it came to the crunch – everything was purely mental. 

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A strong mental game won me my three Majors. I struggled to live up to that – I became intolerant of my focus. To this day, I’m still very intolerant with my focus.

I put too much pressure on myself when it comes down to focus, which I suppose comes with age. You’re not as innocent as you were and carry a bit of baggage. Also, I’m not as fearless as I used to be. When you realise the heights you can reach because of focusing properly, it made it harder for me to focus.

Harrington is a prolific practiser.

Risk everything to get marginally better. That’s my mantra. When I walk away, I want to believe that I tried everything to get to the very highest level. For me, getting better is what it’s all about, even now.

I’m a perfectionist, but I understand that perfection cannot be attained. My father told me: “You can’t have perfection but you can seek excellence”, so let’s say I’m seeking excellence. I still want to get better – no doubt. 

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The older I get, the harder it becomes. The standard just keeps going up. It’s like a 100m dash. Everybody lines up and they all just sprint off. If you’re not four‑under par after nine holes, you’re feeling like “Oh my God, how am I going to make it up here?”.

But I can still compete against the 20-year-olds. I don’t feel like I’m giving them anything in terms of yardage. And I have experience on them, which counts for a lot at this level, especially when you’re in contention.

Padraig Harrington was part of the leadership team at the 2018 Ryder Cup.

Captaining Europe in the Ryder Cup feels like a natural progression. You move on from player to vice-captain to captain, but it’s not something that I take on without a certain amount of trepidation.

When we do play it, we’re going to a new venue. We’re going to have, on average, three more rookies coming into the team, and I have to ensure that I find an edge to make the team perform to the best of their abilities. It won’t be easy.

I had to think long and hard about accepting the captaincy. It’s maybe easier to be a Ryder Cup captain at home, but I also realised that it probably was the best chance for me in an international setting.

I think it does fit nicely that I’ve performed and played in the US, and am reasonably well known over there. The event itself is not too far from Chicago, which has a nice Irish base. There are a lot of good reasons for me to be the captain in the US and all of them should be helpful to me and the team in terms of support.

Whistling Straits will host the rearranged Ryder Cup in a year's time.

My legacy is on the line at Whistling Straits. The margins are so fine in Ryder Cups. If you win, you’re a successful captain. If you lose, you’re not. How this goes does reflect on my career. I’m like everybody else who takes on the Ryder Cup; you’re putting your legacy on the line. So it’s a risk. I know that. 

I don’t want to be a losing Ryder Cup captain. There’s no point in that. I want to be a winning captain. So if you take it on, it’s a big deal to do all you can to come out of it with the right result. And that’s never easy, but particularly not in the States. I think it’s one of those ones where if I’m a winning captain I’ll tell you how important it is for my career once I’ve won. And if I’m a losing captain, I’ll have other things to concentrate on. 

But I definitely don’t go into it lightly. I understand that I might lose and I understand that it’s going to take away from my playing, but I’m comfortable with that. It’s good timing in my playing career and there are a lot of good players coming behind me for this Ryder Cup captaincy, so it’s going to get very busy.

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I don’t have any bad memories from golf. If I have a bad day, I leave it behind somewhere. Emotionally, I was gutted when I lost a tournament in the Irish Closed as a youth years ago which I should have won. But that was an early lesson in learning to relax if you lose. I had to go through that. You learn to in any professional sport.

Pebble Beach's 8th hole provides Padraig Harrington's favourite view.

One course to play for the rest of my days? It’s a toss-up between Royal Portrush and Augusta. Although Portmarnock’s in my thinking as well.

That said, the single best view in golf is standing on the fairway on the 8th at Pebble Beach. That view really does take some beating.

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