Harrington keeps Open win in perspective

By Brian Keogh

Breda Harrington thought she was going to be sick. Two balls in the water. He's blown it, she thought. He's blown the Open. Despite her son's incredible up-and-down from 47 yards for a double bogey six, the mother of Pádraig, Fergal, Fintan, Columb and Tadhg Harrington felt it was all over.

"I was really upset when I went into the players' lounge and Bob Rotella kept saying, it's not over yet," Breda recalls. "But I was saying, it kind of is. Paul McGinley's dad was in there too and was saying, you never know what will happen.

"When he got in the play-off, I was thrilled. That meant another chance and I was up at the first green even before they came out for the play-off and I looked and who was quite near me but Garcia's father. I couldn't see much of the 16th and 17th and on the 18th I went into the players lounge to watch the final bit. And then we celebrated. I didn't look at the final putt. I just put my head down. But when they shouted he's won it, I knew. I was in a bit of a daze.

"I never thought I'd see the day that he'd win the British Open. But he's determined, isn't he. When he was a child he was the ‘King of the Marbles’. He was never one for going on out the road to play much. He was always at sport. But when the marble season came, people would come for him and he was so determined with those marbles."

Miles from the frenetic conclusion to the Open at Carnoustie, Fergal and Fintan were glued to their TV sets in Dublin. Fed up with the constant buzzing of text messages, Columb had switched off his mobile phone once his brother had birdied the 11th and settled down to absorb the action somewhere in Oxfordshire, in peace.

But 45-year-old Tadhg, who had caddied for his little brother right through his amateur career before giving up the bag after the torture of the 1995 Qualifying School, just couldn't bear to watch. Instead, he'd arranged a fourball at Dublin club Hermitage on the banks of the river Liffey. But even then he never missed a shot.

"I wouldn't watch it live," Tadhg recalls. "It was nerves yes. I was just playing a fourball with some friends at Hermitage but I had 174 texts on my phone by the end. I knew blow by blow what was happening - shot by shot. Different people were sending them. And when it was over, I conceded the match and I walked in off the 16th and watched the highlights. Twice."

What Tadhg saw in the highlights reel erased for an instant the myriad disappointments he had suffered as his brother's bagman at courses all over Ireland and Britain from Lahinch, Royal Portrush and Portmarnock to Carnoustie itself. But he gave up celebrating quickly afterwards because like his brother, he knows that there is a fine line between success and failure.

"When I was young, I took a couple of his beatings very badly," Tadhg explains "Even when he won the Irish Close at Lahinch in '95 and I collected a five figure bet, which was a massive amount in those days, I didn't jump over the moon. I had a great night but I felt vindicated inside myself that someone had doubted him that much that he would never win it.

"The first big bet I ever had on Pádraig was when he was beaten by Darren Clarke in the semi-finals of the South of Ireland Championship at Lahinch. And his last big amateur tournament was the Irish Close, again in Lahinch. I had a four figure bet on him at five to one because there was a bookmaker down there who told me that Pádraig would never win.

"So that's the reason I wouldn't get too excited about the Open. We had a few good days after it. But come Wednesday or Thursday, I had certainly given up celebrating. That's not to say I was not happy. But we have had so many disappointments.

"David Higgins beat him in the final of the Irish Close at Portmarnock and that was a huge one - I felt like driving into the water on the way home. That was a massive loss, because he should have won. He had a couple of bad reversals in Lahinch. But when you win the Irish Open or the Open, which is the end of the line, it's great but what's the point in going overboard?

"People ask me why I don't caddie any more - there's Ronan making a fortune - but I couldn't do it. If Pádraig hadn't won, Ronan be still working the next week. But I would be in the mental asylum because of the headlines they were going to write about him.

"Pádraig would admit that he wasn't the happiest person in the world when he won the Open - I was. And he'll admit that. He at least gets to hit the shots. But I knew he would have been slaughtered if he didn't win because he has been slaughtered many times before and it is very, very personal."

Harrington did win the Open though and while the celebrations that followed were nothing compared to the ticker-tape triumphs of Stephen Roche in the 1987 Tour de France or Jack Charlton's 1990 World Cup heroes, he enjoyed every second of his post-Open week in his own way.

On Monday afternoon, hundreds flocked to Weston airport on the outskirts of the capital to welcome him back and a few hours later he was at his home course, Stackstown to present the under-19 TileStyle trophy he had played in many times.

"Enjoy your golf, it’s a great game," Harrington told the winners when he turned up unexpectedly. "Keep playing with good spirit and try to improve. You’ll find it will bring you a long way in life."

Those words could have been spoken by Harrington's late father Paddy, a former policeman and one of the founders of the police-owned club at the foot of Kilmashogue mountain. Stackstown has since commissioned artist Paul Joyce, the great grandnephew of author James Joyce, to paint a portrait of Ireland's first major champion since 1947.

As a child, Harrington helped his Cork-born father pick stones from the newly created fairways and the club became his playground and, later, his practice ground. He took up the game at the age of four and was down to scratch handicap by the time he was 15, setting in motion a representative amateur career with Ireland that has yet to be matched.

Stackstown vice-president, Gerry Carter, recalls the long hours the future Open champion dedicated to the game, which included pulling into the car park at 9am one morning to see Pádraig out practising on the putting green. When he left at 6pm, the kid was still there honing his game.

"All he did was putt for the full day, had a bit of lunch and started again," remembers Carter. "He would do the same with chipping some days, hours and hours and hours. He’s one of these guys who just had a mental focus, even as an amateur. He believed in his own game. He was unrockable. Maybe it’s in the genes. His dad played in two All-Ireland Football finals."

Stopping off at a local restaurant on the way home, Harrington plonked the Claret Jug on the table as he sat down to eat. "I was hardly going to leave it in the car," he recalled afterwards. Later that evening, Dermot Desmond laid on a party for the new Open champion and his friends and family at The Sporting Emporium, a private members gaming and card club in Dublin’s city centre.

Then on Tuesday he was at the Berkeley Court Hotel for a pre-arranged launch of Setanta College, which offers distance learning courses for coaches and is the brainchild of his fitness guru Dr Liam Hennessy. Bellboys dashed out into the car park to have their pictures taken. Reporters asked for autographs.

The furore had still not died down in the Irish press with every paper dedicating pages to his Open championship triumph on a daily basis until he finally headed for the United States on the Sunday following his win.

But while there was no open-top bus parade through the streets of the capital, the Dubliner was kept busy for hours each day fulfilling interview requests from all over Ireland and the world.

The Claret Jug was hardly out of his sight during all this time and stared back at him from the breakfast table every morning as he prepared to take it to yet another function.

On Wednesday, the brothers gathered at their mother’s house in the middle class suburb of Ballyroan and never left the kitchen. Little Paddy was outside with in the back garden with his cousin Eoin, picking apples and searching for more ladybirds, though he hasn't managed to put one in the Claret Jug just yet.

Describing her brood, mother Breda says: "They are all down to earth and even when my husband Paddy was alive, people used to say, 'Well you, must be very proud of Pádraig' and Paddy would say, ‘No. We're not proud as such, we are delighted for him.’ Pádraig will never change. I know this is going to change him a bit but deep down he will never change. Indeed he won't."

Later that evening, the five brothers headed back to Harrington’s palatial home in south Dublin to play what Columb described as "bad darts and pretty good pool" late into the night. "We did everything bar play pitch and toss into the Claret Jug," Harrington recalled with a grin.

CEO of communications technology company U4EA, Columb the second oldest of the five siblings after Tadhg and seen his little brother’s progression right from King of the Marbles to Champion Golfer for 2007.

"It's been an interesting few weeks and it's been particularly pleasing the response the Pádraig has been getting," he recalled. "I don't think I read a negative comment and some of the stories being reported have been fairly uplifting.

"The only regret is my father isn’t here to see it. Otherwise it's for Pádraig to celebrate; he's done all the work, dealt with many disappointments and ultimately pulled off the victory."

The following day, Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Bertie Ahern laid on a reception at government buildings to honour Ireland’s latest sporting hero. Harrington grinned incessantly during the entire ceremony, determined to take it all in and enjoy his moment of glory to the fullest before moving on to his next goal.

"Having my family there and seeing my aunts swooning over Bertie was one of the highlights," he said. "I can't believe how many men cried on Sunday afternoon. The number of people who came up to me and said they shed a tear is phenomenal."

Later that evening, Harrington and his family went to see The Simpsons Movie, describing the outing as "the only time I stopped thinking about golf for an hour-and-a-half this week."

On Friday he hosted the annual Audi Pádraig Harrington Golf Classic which raises thousands for charity every year thanks to the organisational skills of the Links Golfing Society. One of the auction items was a fourball with the Open champion and it was snapped up for €100,000.

Yet despite all the adulation, Harrington is fully aware that how close he came to being labelled a choker for the rest of his days. But as he clutched the trophy during one of his many public appearances, he said: "It’s mine. I won the Open and no-one can ever take that away from me."

Nevertheless, what he calls the "twin impostors" of success and failure are always present.

"The difference between success and failure is such a fine line," he said before the start of the US PGA in Tulsa, "and sometimes not in your control. Obviously if Sergio's putt dropped on 18, that had nothing to do with me. It would be a different story. But I'm long enough in this game to realise that I've had many a day that's gone right for me and many a day that hasn't gone right for me.

"When you win, you've got to enjoy it but always taper it with a bit of what if and you'll always be able to handle the bad days well."

Tadhg says that the first word his brother uttered down the phone line from Carnoustie on Sunday night was, "Thanks." Thanks for believing in me.

"The joy of him winning the Open was fantastic. But the utter dismay if Garcia had holed that putt....", Tadhg said. "In his amateur days he had a lot of disappointments and a lot of criticism from people who said that he couldn't do it and wouldn't do it and was always finishing second.

"So there is a kind of inner happiness when he proves them wrong. But I wouldn't run up and down the road and say you were all wrong, because you will never win. People will always doubt, it is in human nature.

"Why are we not dancing around the streets? Because we are not that kind of family and there have been a lot of disappointments over the years. The difference between winning and losing is miniscule. I have been his lifelong caddie, but no money would be worth the disappointments.

"I spoke to him on Sunday straight away. He was over the moon. The first thing he said was thank you. And the first thing he said at the Sporting Emporium on Monday night was thank you - for supporting him and believing in him and never doubting him.

"We are not a back-slapping family. How does he keep his feet on the ground? It's very simple. The times that he lost I didn't ring him up and saw he was an idiot. I said keep it going, keep getting into contention. The easiest thing to do would be to hide and finish 10th. Keep putting your head on the block and one day you will win."

As for the future, Tadhg predicts more major glory for his brother. "He certainly won't be happy with winning the Open on its own," he says. "It is not a question of saying, I have won one so I should win another one. No. You go back to square one and try to put yourself in contention on Sunday. That’s it."