Harrington sees McIlroy on the cusp of golfing immortality

Padraig Harrington believes Rory McIlroy could become the most prolific major winner of all time. Picture Fran Caffrey/www.golffile.ie.Padraig Harrington believes that Rory McIlroy can lay the foundations of what could be the greatest major championship career in history if he goes on to win the Masters this year.

While all eyes will be on Tiger Woods today and his quest to take another step towards beating Jack Nicklaus’ haul of 18 professional major victories, Harrington sees McIlroy becoming a serious part of that conversation if he gets the job done on Sunday.

Sensing that a victory by his Ryder Cup team mate would open the floodgates to multiple major wins, Harrington said: “I don’t see why he can’t win. And if he does win, there will be another name thrown in [to the debate] about the guy who is going to win the most majors in a career. So, it’s a big step for him at the weekend in that sense.

“It will bring a lot of pressure with it but he is certainly well capable of playing the golf and this is why he loves being there.

“He should see this as a great opportunity. He will have plenty of them and not get too stressed about the 36 holes ahead of him. But he has a great opportunity to win at 21 years of age. That’s phenomenal.”

Turning to Augusta National member Billy Morris, Harrington flashed a wide grin and added: “He will be coming back here for 50 years.”  

Harrington has been a huge admirer of McIlroy’s for many years, famously referring to the winner of the Silver Medal for low amateur during his Open Championship trophy acceptance speech at Carnoustie in 2007.

Cradling the Claret Jug, Harrington turned to the then 18-year old McIlroy and said: “I’d like to congratulate Rory on his fine achievement. I’m glad I got in before he wins one. I am sure he will win a few Open Championships in the future. He is a fine talent and he proved it this week.”

McIlroy could easily have won the Open last year had he realised that a 75 in Friday’s gales was a reasonable return. Instead, he pushed too hard and shot 80. The rest, as they say, is history.

He had a chance also to become a 20 year old major winner in last year’s US PGA at Whistling Straits but failed to hole the putts when it really mattered coming down the stretch.

It was another third place finish for the youngster from the suburbs of Belfast but this time he is playing a course that seems tailor made for his towering ball flight and his precision driving.

Harrington is mightily impressed and sees no reason why his countryman can’t go on and finish the job or at least contend right to the death on Sunday.

McIlroy shot a three under par 69 to lead by two strokes on 10 under par from Australia’s Jason Day with Tiger Woods and KJ Choi a further shot behind.

“It’s unbelievable isn’t it,” he said of McIlroy’s performance so far. “When you have the lead and you go out and shoot a good score, and it was tricky out there, it is very impressive. It is not easy out there.

“It was an excellent score in the conditions and when you are leading. He is going to have a tough 36 holes ahead of him that’s for sure. It is not going to get easier than it has been but he’s obviously very comfortable. Very impressive.”

Turing to peruse the giant scoreboard that stands sentinel at the 18th green, Harrington scanned the names and assessed McIlroy’s chances of going all the way.

“I didn’t realise Tiger had got to six under (he still had three holes to play) and I was going to say it’s a reasonable lead but there are a lot of good names coming up behind him.”

Harrington had also noticed names such as Geoff Ogilvy, who is on four adrift on six under, or Lee Westwood, who ended the day only five behind after a 67.

“There are plenty of good players coming behind so he is going to have to play well on the weekend. But he had to play well today and he did it. You never know, ten under par might not be far away at the end of the week and he is capable of getting it to 15 or 16 under and nobody has a chance.

“He has two chances of winning this tournament. He can go on and shoot the numbers at the weekend and nobody has a chance of catching him. But the likelihood is that he will have a chance no matter what coming down the stretch on Sunday.”

Harrington’s Masters goose was cooked on Thursday morning when he tweaked the flexor muscle in the right side of his neck and took 77 in the first round.

He putted poorly that day but fared just as badly in a second round 72 that saw him miss the cut by four strokes for his second consecutive failure here.

He contemplated pulling out before the first round but played on despite the fact that he only had 10 percent mobility in his neck.

He was never likely to pull out overnight and following treatment and anti-inflammatory tablets, he gained up to 40 percent mobility and decided that it would be worthwhile heading out to try and make the cut.

“I was thinking about [pulling out] last night but once I got up this morning, I was fine,” he said. “Plus it’s another chance to play Augusta, isn’t it. If I started yesterday, I was going to start today.”

Before the start, he reasoned: “If I can make the cut, I can still win.”

He would have needed a 68 to progress but putted abysmally by his high standards, closing with a three-putt for a double bogey six at the last, his third double of the week. Tellingly, he took 68 putts over the two days, finishing third last in the putting statistics.

“I putted like a Womble over the two days,” he said candidly.

He is praying that the neck injury was to blame for his poor form on the greens. If not, he has a major problem to solve.

“It’s okay,” he said of his injury. “It certainly wasn’t affecting my play as much today. I probably had 40 percent movement in it which is fine. Ten percent yesterday wasn’t enough. Obviously it had a little bit of a knock on effect in the fact that it knocks your timing out a little bit but hopefully it knocked out my reading of the greens as well because I struggled a lot there today.”

Asked if the injury was to blame for his failure to make the cut for the fourth time in his last five majors starts and the sixth in nine attempts since his US PGA win in 2008, he said: “Absolutely. Mind you, I did have 70 putts over two days [officially 68 to be T96 out of 99].

“I am not 100 percent sure but I putted like a Womble over the two days. I could blame that, I could blame a couple of shots here [or there] but without a doubt, if I wasn’t injured I certainly think I would have done enough. Who knows. You can never tell. I am playing the best golf of my life.”

Harrington lost so much confidence on the greens that he reverted to his old putting routine midway through the back nine on Thursday.

He had taken to hovering the putter over the ball when making his practice strokes - one of a slew of changes he made to his routines over the winter.

He argued that this would make it more difficult to misalign himself over his putts but when they failed to drop on Augusta’s slippery greens, he returned to the old method again for the entirety of his second round: grounding the club behind the ball and then pulling his putter inside for a few practice strokes before shuffling back to the ball.

“I had lost my feel the other way,” he said. “So I will be back to the old routine. Even though I like it mechanically, I had lost a bit of feel. So I’d prefer to have the feel. I have gone back to the old routine and I will stick to it. I like having my feel, much as the other is technically better. The hover is gone.”

Neither method appeared to work this week.

At the first hole he missed the green to the right, finishing on an upslope no more than 25 feet from the pin. He opted to putt through the fringe but his ball was thrown left by a mound and he completely misread his eight foot par putt.

Now six over for the tournament, he hit a great drive down the second but with only an iron to the green, he pulled his approach into a greenside bunker and failed to threaten the hole with his birdie putt from around 12 feet.

Asked if the damage was done on Thursday, he said: “I had a big mountain to climb after making a mess of the first two holes. And when you can’t hole a putt to save your life….

“I hit it close all the way home on the back. But I took 20 putts on the back nine! I take 20 putts for 18 holes!”

McIlroy played so brilliantly from tee to green that he could afford to miss five birdie chances inside 12 feet and still shoot 69.

Could he pay the price for those misses over the weekend? Harrington preferred to look on the bright side, urging McIlroy not to worry unduly about his misses.

“He shouldn’t focus too much on that,” Harrington said. “He should be taking the positives. Inevitably a few of those putts will be for pars at the weekend so he doesn’t want to think he is missing putts. He should be positive.

“He is 10 under par and he is leading by two. He has a good score backing up a very good score yesterday and he is on a course that obviously suits his game very well.”

The question is: Is McIlroy ready to win a major at the tender age of 21?

“You are always ready when you are going to win. So, yeah. I don’t see why he can’t win.”

As for Harrington, he is still the eternal optimist when it comes to his own game.

Asked if he had any concerns, he visibly raised his eyebrows in surprise and said: “I am very optimistic about my game. I putted badly which is more important than anything else. I hit it close and well enough. I am very optimistic about my game.”