Brian Keogh at The European Club
Padraig Harrington will be the envy of every serious pretender to his Open Championship crown when he begins his defence of the €70,000 Ladbrokes.com Irish PGA Championship at The European Club today.
Spaniard Sergio Garcia is at home in Castellón in eastern Spain, while players of the calibre of Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Angel Cabrera and Lee Westwood are playing for a first prize of €631,045 in the Barclays Scottish Open on the pristine parkland fairways of Loch Lomond, some 50 miles from the nearest strip of links land.
In the light of his Major championship breakthrough at Carnoustie last year, which came on the heels of his play-off win in the Irish PGA the previous week, every tour player now knows where Harrington is preparing for next week’s Major examination at Royal Birkdale.
World number three Scott jokingly wondered earlier this season if there was any way he could get a game in the Irish Championship on Pat Ruddy’s impressive links, hard by Brittas Bay in Co Wicklow.
And while Harrington will be playing for a top prize of just €10,000, it is understandable that many of his rivals are looking jealously across the Irish Sea and wondering how much of an advantage the reigning Open champion will glean from another competitive joust with Pat Ruddy’s links creation.
Despite a lingering neck injury, Harrington will test the new Wilson Smooth driver this week and he has no doubt that his bid for a fifth Irish PGA title will stand him in good stead when he stands on the first tee at Royal Birkdale.
“There are a number of benefits,” said Harrington, who carded one-over par 72 in yesterday’s pro-am, which left him two shots adrift of Dundalk’s Leslie Walker. “First of all, I’m better off getting competitive for any tournament on a golf course than I am on any practice ground. The second benefit is that I get to do that this week in a reasonably stress-free environment for me. It’s low-key, I’m staying at home. So it is ideal in that sense.
“The third benefit is it’s on a links golf course. It takes a while to get used to the wind again because my ball flight has totally changed since I play in the ‘States so much and it does take a while to get used to the shots you want to hit.
“On a links golf course, there’s the lies, the putts, putting from off the green, the chipping, the pitching, the sand in the bunkers. The wind, punch shots, all those things. How far the ball will travel. There’s so many things that are different on a links course.”
Harrington will tee it up alongside last year’s Irish Order of Merit winner Mark Staunton and St Margaret’s John Kelly, the recently crowned Irish Club Professional champion and the current leader of the Irish Region money list.
And when he shakes hands on the first tee, he will see a few familiar faces staring back. His older brother Tadhg will carry Kelly’s bag: a bag, it appears, that now contains up to 11 of Harrington’s old clubs.
Smiling at the “loss” of the laser-cut Ci7 irons he used to win last year’s Hassan Trophy in Morocco and their subsequent “donation” to the Kelly cause by his older brother, Harrington smiled and said: “I remember wondering where those irons we had specially made up had gone. But Tadhg had them out the door like a shot.”
Ranked a 1/2 favourite by the tournament sponsors to lift the title, Harrington dismisses Eamonn Darcy’s suggestion that a failure to win this week would indicate “that something is wrong” with his game.
“No, certainly not,” Harrington said. “I wouldn’t ever take it like that. For starters you never know, somebody could play well and have a good week and anybody playing well is a good player.”
Shock Open Championship qualifier Philip Walton, tour regular David Higgins and last year’s runner-up McGovern are more than capable of walking away with the title on Saturday evening.
But one senses that the real winner will again prove to be The European Club, which has seen two bunkers extend their reach on the par-five 13th and two more added on the corner of the doglegs at both the 15th and 16th.
Ominously, there will be no ball spotters in action this week, though course proprietor Ruddy believes the use of hand strimmers cut back back the heavier patches of rough, will make it eminently playable.
“The rough is heavy but it is not ball-guzzling,” Ruddy said. “It is golf hampering, which is what it is meant to be.”