By Brian Keogh
When asked what he thought it was that made Tiger Woods the unstoppable force he is today, Padraig Harrington didn’t even pause for thought.
“He believes,” Harrington said succinctly. Nothing more, nothing less.
After a vintage year that saw the grinning Dubliner end a 25-year wait for a home winner of the Irish Open and then capture the Open in unbelievable fashion at Carnoustie a few months later, it is sometimes easy for those of emerald hue to forget that despite Harrington mania, Woods is becoming more dominant than ever.
Seven PGA Tour victories, including a 13th major title, tell only part of the story of another incredible year for Woods. The PGA Tour player’s Player of the Year for the ninth time in 11 seasons, the gap between Woods and rest appears to be growing rather than shrinking.
“If no one is able to keep pace, I'm going to obviously increase the gap,” Woods said of a year when he won two World Golf Championships, lifted the US PGA and finished second in two other majors. He won almost 50 percent of his starts.
“Winning takes care of everything, basically,” he said. “The more wins you have, you don't have to really worry about the World Rankings.”
Approaching his 32nd birthday, Woods has lived up to every word of the hype surrounding his 12-stroke victory in The Masters in 1996. He appears unlikely to “do more than any man in history to change the course of humanity”, as his father Earl once told Sports Illustrated. But he’s making a fist of it on and off the golf course.
The first African American to win a major, his victory was hailed as a feat as significant as Jackie Robinson breaking through the colour barrier in major league baseball or Jesse Owens' triumphs in the Berlin Olympics of 1936.
Yet even as he hurtles towards Jack Nicklaus’ haul of 18 major titles like a runaway freight train, Woods is already far more than just another golfer.
His Tiger Woods Foundation has touched the lives of over 10 million youngsters since it was set up 10 years ago and while Earl Woods has since passed on to his reward alongside the man Woods calls “the big guy in the sky”, his son is doing his level best to justify his father’s expensive renovation of the modest California home where he grew to love the game.
“I have prepared this house so that it can be converted into a national historical monument one day,” Earl told The Observer in 2002. “All the floors in here are granite, they are not hardwood or any of that other stuff. Granite - the hardest stone. All of the wood you see is walnut. It is built to last - because I am certain that one day the birthplace of Tiger Woods is going to become widely acknowledged.”
Breda Harrington won’t be pulling up the floorboards on Ballyroan Road anytime soon, yet there are comparisons between Harrington and Woods that bear closer scrutiny.
Like Harrington, Woods is undoubtedly his father’s son. Both worked in uniform - Earl in the Green Berets, Paddy in the Gardai. Now that their fathers are no longer around, the respective winners of the European and PGA Tour “Player of the Year” gongs are simply bidding to be as good as they can be.
Many sniffed at Woods Snr’s predictions of greatness for his son, yet beneath the corporate veneer and the slickness of the Woods’ publicity machine, you can sense that Woods really does want to make a difference.
“I'm in a very unique position where a lot of kids look up to me just because I'm around their age group,” Woods said following his breakthrough win at Augusta. “And I think if I can influence their lives in a positive way, then I believe that's what the big guy in the sky had intended for me.”
Like Harrington, who is donating the proceeds of his Open Championship winning story to a series of deserving charities through his Foundation, the key to Woods success is his unswerving desire to improve and his simple love of the game
“If you love what you do, then you're not going to experience burnout,” Woods said before putting away his clubs for 2007. “I can understand if you're forced to do something you really don't want to do and you don't really have you may be good at it but you just don't like doing it, it may be a means to an end.
“But for all the people out there who have been extremely successful, they've always loved what they do, from athletes to whatever their job description is. I think if you really do have a passion for it, then you don't ever get burned out.”
Harrington may never close the gap, but his Tiger-like desire to get the best out of his game is sure to bring even greater rewards in the future.