By Brian Keogh
Sky high and hungry, Padraig Harrington reached for a pile of chocolate bars in the top floor boardroom of the Bank of Ireland’s Dublin headquarters. “That is another bonus of winning by the way.” he said with a grin, his native city spread out below. “When you win, you can eat all around you and it doesn’t have any effect on you whatsoever.”
The previous evening, he had broken his normally spartan habits by gorging himself at a celebratory barbecue: two steaks, eight sausages, two baked potatoes, onion, toffee and nut merengue and a double helping of Ben & Jerry’s. “Didn’t bother me in the least.”
A 15-stone man trapped in the body of a 12 stone 9 lb athlete by sheer willpower and burning ambition, the nervous energy of his second Major win eventually fade away. But his appetite for more major victories will ensure that he continues to move forward and avoid the pitfalls that have sent many a champion hurtling head-first from the top of the world to the pavement.
When a man achieves all his goals in life, there is nowhere else to go but down, which is why Harrington continues to push the envelope of ambition by consistently striving for the attainable and the outlandish in equal measure.
“I was shaving this morning and it did cross my mind what I needed to do to catch world No 2,” said Harrington, who reached a career high of third in the world this week. “Certainly to get to world No 1 you have to get to world No 2. It's a tough battle to catch Phil there, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind the competition. It will probably push both of us on.
“World No 1 is a little bit further up there, but as I said Phil knows he has to push on, and I know I have to if I want to catch Tiger. It's quite a few wins away.”
The history of golf is littered with stories of men who touched the Holy Grail and were never seen again, as Harrington is well aware.
“Take David Duval when he became world No 1,” Harrington explained. “He got there, got what he always wanted. Michael Campbell won the US Open, got what he always wanted. Philip Walton made the Ryder Cup team, got what he always wanted. We can list all these things. But if you get what you always want, what’s left after that? And that is the problem. It is a goal setting issue. If you get to a level that you always want to be at and you don’t have something to follow on, what then?
“Why did Greg Norman play well last week and where has he been? The reason why top champion players drift away from the game is because their goals in life change, family goals, kids. It is not because they don’t love the game but they don’t want to be out on the road, they have done everything they thought they could achieve in the game and just drift away from it.
“I will be a competitive golfer as long as I have goals ahead of me. The minute I sit back and start thinking, where do I stand in terms of achievement in Irish sporting history, is the minute you start drifting away from this game. It will take a couple of years, but you will be gone.
“If you look at your Faldo, your Woosie, your Seve, your Lyle, they all played 20 years golf and just went out of the game. It is burn out. But you can get burnt out just as quickly by achieving your goal as much as being there a long time.”
Going broke or paying for an expensive divorce is a sure fire way of ensuring a comeback in golf, as Jack Nicklaus proved in the 1986 Masters. “If you are money orientated, you will last longer in this game,” Harrington explained. “Lee Trevino twice went broke and both times came back to play great golf. David Duval is back playing golf because he has two kids of almost teenage years and he wants to show these 12 year olds that he can play, that he was the world No 1.
“Take Byron Nelson. All he was interested in was making enough money to buy a farm. Every day he was buying the picket fence, he was buying the animals and once he made it, he stopped. He didn’t have the intensity.”
Carrots are important to Harrington, who followed the Phil Mickelson credo and always spoke of his ambition to win majors (plural) rather than making his first win the summit of his ambitions. And that’s why why his only interest is money is to accumulate enough to buy a private jet that will whisk him transatlantic and smooth the journey to future major glory.
“If I had any financial motive, that would be a little carrot,” he said, explaining that the massive costs involved - $45 million plus, not including running costs of $60,000 a pop for a US trip - make it an extravagance that is hard to justify.
“Warren Buffett calls his plane ‘The Great Unjustifiable.’ I don’t think I will be able to justify it either,” Harrington added. Still, he wants one and while he might have to wait until next year, the meteoric rise in the stock he likes to call the “Padraig Harrington Brand” will allow him to re-negotiate a contract with an existing sponsor that will generate enough cash to cover the running costs of running his new toy.
Set to turn 37 at the end of next month, Harrington takes immense satisfaction from playing the best back nine of his life in the final round at Royal Birkdale, scorching home in a Tigeresque 32 blows. By winning the 2006 Order of Merit and the 2007 Irish Open and Open Championships, he knows he can make it happen when he needs to make it happen.
“Bob Torrance always says that the difference between a good player and a great player is that a good player can play great when the feeling is upon him but a great player can play good when he needs to.
“That’s what being in the zone means. It means that you are doing things that to you feel comfortable and ordinary and yet to somebody coming in..... I had two eagle putts and seven birdie putts, I had no idea that that’s how well I was playing. It was eight shots better than the average score for the last nine groups on the back nine. Twenty players would have won the Open if they played like that on the back nine.
“I was favourite going out in the last round. But one thing is being favourite and another thing going out there and taking it and I feel like I did take that Open Championship.”
With his appetite sharper than ever, he believes he still has another nine years left at golf’s top table. As boxing aficionados well know, a hungry fighter is a dangerous fighter.