From Brian Keogh in Houston
Darren Clarke has described Padraig Harrington - whatever his form - as one of the most dangerous players in a major championship and deserving of his place alongside the modern golfing greats.
Harrington will bid to become just the third player in the history of the game following Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods to win three consecutive major championships at next week’s Masters Tournament.
Yet while many believe that he is simply not playing well enough right now to become the first Irish winner of the coveted green jacket at Augusta National, Clarke has massive respect for Harrington's major winning exploits over the past two years and remains convinced that the Dubliner’s ability to score when he’s struggling will see him add considerably to his tally of major wins despite his erratic nature.
"You never know quite what you're going to get from Padraig," said Clarke, who was tied for second behind Justin Leonard in the 1997 Open Championship at Troon. “He can play like he did during the final nine holes of the Open [at Royal Birkdale] when he was clearly the best player on the planet, or he can play like he did over the last nine holes in the U.S PGA [at Oakland Hills] when he was obviously struggling. But look at what he scored both times - 32 on both occasions.
“That's a brilliant gift to be able to score as well when playing badly as when you are hitting it great, and that's why he is so dangerous and a threat to win any major.”
Harrington has struggled to find his best form so far this year but the wounded duck image he has tried hard to promote in recent weeks is reminiscent of the injured wrist excuse he used to deflect the pressure before last year’s Open and the Friday night dehydration problem he claimed had destroyed his hopes of winning the US PGA.
While Tiger Woods has 14 major championships under his belt, Harrington has the same number as Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els and one more than the likes of Jose Maria Olazabal, Retief Goosen or Greg Norman.
“He's now right up there with the modern greats of the game like Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson with three majors and deservedly so,” Clarke said in Houston, where he must win to claim his place on the starting line at Augusta. “Look at the players he's now ahead of who won two majors, players like Greg Norman.
“What an accolade that is - and I don't think he's finished yet, either.
“He's also a great inspiration to every other European player. I know that from talking to Lee Westwood and I am sure that players like Justin Rose and Paul Casey must be looking at Padraig and using him as a role model as well.”
Harrington’s rivals know just how good he is and when asked recently about the Dubliner’s so-so form heading into the Masters, Casey said: “I'm sure he's not particularly worried. I'm sure he's working harder than ever. I think we should be worried.”