Even Tiger Woods was impressed by Padraig Harrington’s double Major winning feats in a season that will go down in history as the Year of the Irish.
Forget that Woods was out injured when the Dubliner retained the Open with four shots to spare and then won the US PGA by two to become the first European to win back to back Majors.
Taking his hat off to Harrington, Woods said: “If I'm in the field or not, it is what it is, you've still got to go out there and earn it. It's not like they were giving that trophy out. You have to earn it, and he did.
“We always knew that once Paddy won one Major, and the way he did it, he was going to win again. It just gave him that kind of confidence, and obviously he won two in a row.
“The confidence you get from winning one, and then two just proves it to you that one wasn't a fluke, and it gives you all that confidence in the world. And look how he did it; he shot 32 on the back nine on both of them. He got it done the right way. He went out and earned it.”
The 2008 season will be remembered as the most successful in the history of Irish golf with Harrington’s stunning summer the highlight of a year that saw Ireland grab 15 wins on all tours.
Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke won twice, pals Damien McGrane and Peter Lawrie broke their tour ducks and Rory McIlroy secured his Masters place as a teenager by scorching from 232nd to 39th in the world.
No fewer than 11 Irishmen are in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai with Challenge Tour graduate Gareth Maybin joined by Q-School qualifiers Jonny Caldwell and Michael Hoey.
Even the amateurs excelled with the Irish men’s team retaining the European Team title before crushing the opposition in the Home Internationals. Paul McGinley went almost unnoticed as he recovered from a nightmare 2007 season to surge from 207th to 104th in the world.
And he reckons the Golfing Union of Ireland deserve a bigger share of the credit for Ireland’s bumper 2008 campaign.
McGinley said: “The Irish have had a wonderful year on tour - eight tournament wins, two majors. It's unbelievable. Rory has come on in leaps and bounds, Graeme has had a wonderful year and capped it with a brilliant performance in the Ryder Cup.
“As a country I think we should be very proud of what we have achieved this year. Padraig has won three major championships in 13 months. He certainly wouldn't have done that without the benefit of the GUI. They don’t get enough credit.”
Even if Woods comes back in time from knee surgery to tee it up in the Masters, all the focus will be on Harrington’s bid for the third leg of the Paddy Slam at Augusta. He’s hoping Woods will relieve some of the pressure by turning up, but the world No 1 reckons all the pressure will be on the Irish ace.
Asked what was harder for Harrington - going for three Majors in a row or going for three in a row with Tiger in the field, Woods said: “Three in a row, period. There will be a ton of questions leading up to that. You can't avoid that. He'll be asked that every tournament he plays at.
“I'm the underdog. I want to sneak in there so nobody even knows I'm playing.” After what happened in 2008, Harrington can keep the green machine humming by pulling on that green jacket.
January - Padraig Harrington confesses he’s suffering from shingles after the stress of 2007 but goes on to win two Majors in a record-breaking season for Irish golf.
February - Damien McGrane outscores Tiger Woods 72-73 in the Dubai Desert Classic. They play together on the final day but Woods shoots 65 to 79 by McGrane to take the title by a shot from Martin Kaymer.
March - Graeme McDowell hits a stunning seven-iron to a foot to win the Ballantine’s Championship in Korea at the third extra hole. His first win since 2004 kicks off Ireland’s record-smashing year and gives him a huge Ryder Cup boost. Shane Lowry wins the West of Ireland.
April - Trevor Immelman wins the Masters as Harrington finishes fifth. Kells kingpin McGrane wins the Volvo China Open by nine shots to take his maiden European Tour win in his 169th start. A week later, Darren Clarke drains a 40 footer on the last to win his first European Tour title in nearly five years in the BMW Asian Open.
May - It’s three Irish wins on the trot as Castleknock’s Peter Lawrie takes the Spanish Open in a play-off. Richard Finch falls into the River Maigue but still wins the Irish Open at Adare Manor. Teen sensation Leona Maguire, 13, beats her twin sister Lisa to become the youngest winner of the Irish Ladies Close at Westport. Michael Hoey wins on the Challenge Tour in Morocco.
June - Woods wins the US Open on one leg in a Monday playoff with Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines. Eoin Arthurs claims the East of Ireland by four shots as The Curragh’s Paul O’Hanlon beats Dara Lernihan at the 20th to lift the Irish Close at Belvoir Park.
July - McDowell wins the Barclays Scottish Open to seal his Ryder Cup place. He leads the Open after the first round but it’s Harrington who comes out on top with a closing 69. After defending the Irish PGA, he overcomes a wrist injury with help from Phil Mickelson to win by four shots from Ian Poulter and become the first European to retain the Claret Jug since James Braid in 1906. Mick McGready wins the Wales Challenge as Ireland’s amateur men retain European Team Championship.
August - Harrington wins back to back Majors at the US PGA. The Dubliner suffers dehydration to trail by six at halfway but closes with a pair of 66’s to win by two shots from Sergio Garcia and Ben Curtis. One behind Garcia with four to play, Harrrington holes three vital putts on the last three greens to deny the Spaniard again.
September - Ireland’s amateurs end a five-year drought in the Home Internationals at Muirfield and an 18-year wait for the Triple Crown. McDowell shines in the Ryder Cup but Harrington is left winless as Faldo’s European side crashes to a five-point defeat at the hands of an inspired US squad at Valhalla. Gareth Maybin seals his tour card with a Challenge Tour win in China.
October - Harrington renews his contract with Wilson Golf in a three-year deal worth $10m. Stephen Browne quits golf for family life after five years on tour. Des Smyth says goodbye to the Champions Tour after earning $4.4m there in six years. Noel Fox clinches the EuroPro Tour money title and his Challenge Tour card.
November - Rory McIlroy becomes the youngest player to make the world’s top 50 when he loses in a play-off for the Hong Kong Open. Tiger Woods confirms he will play in the 2010 JP McManus Invitational Pro-Am at Adare Manor. Padraig Harrington wins European Tour Golfer of the Year award. Jonny Caldwell and Michael Hoey win tour cards at the Q-School.
December - Harrington signs $12m endorsement deal with FTI and beats off competition from Tiger Woods to become first European winner of the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year Award. Just 15 months after turning professional, teenager Rory McIlroy clinches his Masters place when he ties for third in the South Africa Open to go 39th in the world. Gareth Maybin loses in a play-off in just his fourth tour start to end the year ranked 90th in the world.
Highs and Lows
The High - Crazy eyes Harrington doubles up at US PGA
Padraig Harrington was in a different class as he left the field for dead to win by four at Royal Birkdale and become the first European to retain the Open title for 102 years.
But the Dubliner confessed that it would be hard to match the excitement of his US PGA triumph at Oakland Hills three weeks later.
With his eyes popping out of his head, Harrington stared down Sergio Garcia to become the first European to win back-to-back Majors.
Recalling his Tiger-like performance down the stretch, Harrington said: “If I could bottle the mental state I was in at the end of the PGA, especially holing the putts on 16, 17 and 18, I believe I'd be so much better. This is a focus we've seen in other players, you're close to unbeatable when you're in a zone like that. "When I get those starey eyes, I do things."
The Low - Clarke and the Ryder Cup
Darren Clarke won twice this season but was still snubbed by skipper Nick Faldo for a Ryder Cup wild card. The single dad began the year ranked 225th in the world but lifted the BMW Asian Open before storming to victory in the KLM Dutch Open just a week before the European Ryder Cup team was finalised.
The big Ulsterman looked certain to land a captain’s pick and his sixth Ryder Cup cap but Faldo had other ideas and controversially opted for Ian Poulter and Paul Casey. The matches at Valhalla were a disaster for Faldo as the US triumphed for the first time in nine years.
Poulter was Europe’s hero but it was telling that top trio Padraig Harrington, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood failed to win a match as the US ran out easy winners by 16 1/2 to 11 1/2.
Ireland’s golfing year - 15 wins
European Tour - 8 wins: Padraig Harrington (The Open, US PGA) Graeme McDowell (Ballantine’s Championship, Barclays Scottish Open) Darren Clarke (BMW Asian Open, KLM Dutch Open) Damien McGrane (Volvo China Open) Peter Lawrie (Spanish Open)
Challenge Tour - 3 wins: Michael Hoey (Banque Populaire Moroccan Classic) Michael McGeady (SWALEC Wales Challenge) Gareth Maybin (Qingdao Golf Open)
Europro Tour - 4 wins: Alan Murray (Collingtree Park Championship) Brian McElhinney (The Shire London Championship) Noel Fox (Faithlegg Championship) Simon Thornton (Bovey Castle Championship)