By Brian Keogh
Surrounded by some heavy-handed police as he was ushered away from the media centre at Oakland Hills last Sunday night, Pádraig Harrington broke away from the pack to answer one last question from a familiar but imploring Irish voice.
“So where did it come from? That heart?”
Thousands of words have been written about Harrington’s “miraculous” transformation from serial runner-up to three-time Major winner. But the truth is that the technical, physical and mental improvements that Harrington has bolted on to his game over the course of the past decade would be worth nothing had it not been for bloody-minded assassin that resides within.
“I always had it,” was Harrington’s response, the thrill of battle still discernible in his eyes. “I love the excitement and the fear. I love the intensity of that. I just live for it. And they key is, I know I am going to mess up some day. You have to take responsibility for your actions when the situation arises and go for it. You are the only one that can do it.”
Few sportsmen know the value of ruthlessness and the treachery of sentiment better than the Dubliner. The ability to wade into the thick of the action, eyes popping, blade swinging, has always come easily to him.
Yet while the 90th United States PGA Championship goes down in Harrington’s book as the most enjoyable of his three Major victories, his successful defence of last month’s Open at Royal Birkdale is easily the most satisfying.
“I’m only too happy when my back’s to the wall and there is something going wrong,” Harrington confessed the day after his latest success. “I definitely have issues about feeling comfortable but that’s what was so satisfying at Birkdale. It was mine to win and I performed when I was playing well. At Birkdale I hit the ball pure all the time. There was a lot more work this time.”
Peter Alliss described Harrington’s emergence from his sporting chrysalis to win at Royal Birkdale as a beautiful thing. And few players will have understood what the venerable commentator meant better than Harrington’s fellow Dubliner Paul McGinley.
“Everyone talks about how Faldo restructured his game. But nobody ever talks about how much Padraig has restructured his game,” McGinley said as long ago as last year. “When I first knew him, he didn’t have a game. He couldn’t flight the ball. I played with him in Walker Cup in ‘91 and he hit a low fade, couldn’t get it airborne.
“He has a big high draw now, compared to a fade and he doesn’t get the credit for what he has done with his game. Before he started working with Bob (Torrance), he wasn’t a striker. He was a chipper and putter and got it around. But he couldn’t strike the golf ball and he would admit that too.”
Harrington didn’t celebrate his victory with the rest of the Irish contingent at Dick O’Dow’s Irish pub on Sunday night but sat back to reflect on the enormity of what had just happened to him with his family and friends in his rented house in the leafy surrounds of Bloomfield Hills. To be mentioned in the same breath as Faldo and Seve Ballesteros is something the Dubliner must now use a weapon rather than burden and he admits that accepting that he is now a “great” player is his next challenge.
“I don’t know if it’s sinking in but I’ve got to make the effort - and this is the big thing - to believe it, to accept it,” Harrington said. “Many times I’ve had these long discussions during evenings with friends of mine and my brothers about believing it as much as they do.
“I would sit there, sometimes paying lip service to what they were saying. But having won three Majors in the modern era and looking at the players I can compare myself with in terms of the Majors they have won, I’ve got to start accepting that I am who I am.
“Part of getting to the next level and achieving more sustainability, especially in normal tournaments, is believing that I am a guy who has won three Majors. That I am world No 3 at the moment and that I’m improving.
“I’ve talked with Bob Rotella about it before. It is hard to move into that confidence level. To have that confidence. That is something I have always had trouble with. But that is a genuine way of improving my game, coming to terms with it and having a little more of that free-flowing confidence. I have good internal belief but I just need that ability to walk onto the first tee, puff out my chest and say I’m here, which I have never had.”
Harrington will celebrate his 37th birthday on August 31 next, making him the youngest of the active players with as many Majors on their resumes: Phil Mickelson (38), Ernie Els (38) and Vijay Singh (45).
Fear has always been his watchword but he has now set his sights using confidence as a vehicle to carry him to the same plane as Tiger Woods.
“Fear has served me well. I am not afraid to let it go,” Harrington said. “But I have seen what confidence has done for players. I need to turn up and say, I am the player here to watch.”
Barring an unlikely call up from Nick Faldo, the absence of Colin Montgomerie from the European Ryder Cup team at Valhalla next month will thrust Harrington into that role for the first time. If Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills are any indication, it will be compulsory viewing.