50 Shades of Pádraig and other matters

Up Down. Pádraig Harrington is a fan of Royal County Down. Picture © Getty Images

Padraig Harrington is a man used to dealing with absolutes in the numbers game that is professional golf.

But he’s also capable of surfing those grey areas that give him just enough wriggle room to talk himself 360 degrees around a given subject.

Hard and soft are two words that immediately bring up images of solidity or lack thereof — such as the greens and fairways of a Royal County Down links that hasn’t seen a drop of rain for 10 days.

But they also describe mental or physical fortitude and while Harrington insists he’ll “crawl" to the first tee to beat the pain barrier and tee it up in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open tomorrow, he admits he’s far too used to the perfect conditions we see on the PGA Tour to consider himself as hard a man as the amateur who could shoot 73 around the Newcastle links in a maelstrom and still win by five.

“I’d like to have the skills I had when I was 18 years of age out there this week rather than the skills I have now,” Harrington confessed. “The chip shots you’re going to get this week, we just don’t get that sort  of stuff any more.

“We are chopping out of long rough all the time and this is a completely different test, hitting off hardpan downwind to tight pins… “

While he shot a two over 73 to win a Hilary outing by five shots at Royal County Down back in his youth, he admits that he’s now gone “soft” after playing for years on the PGA Tour where bad weather inevitably means a long wait in the clubhouse.

He wants it hard but not too tough.

“I have gone soft, yeah,” he said. “I wouldn’t be close to capable of doing a score like that these days. 

“I used to go around The European Club in five or six under par in matches. I’d be five or six over par now.

“I like when it’s tricky, firm and fast. But to be honest, if you look at my record, I tend to win on soft courses. 

“I’ve done well and won on tough courses where there have been storms because I can get up and down from anywhere. So while we might get some rain here, it’s not going to get soft and that would be against me.”

While he wants the tour to make life hell for the players, he knows they will push tees up to keep things under control, as Tournament Director Miguel Vidaor admitted yesterday as he kept a weather eye on a forecast for gale force winds at the weekend.

“We are going to have to be careful with some of the tee positions —  on 9, and 4, possibly 15,” the Spaniard said. “If we are going to play into the wind or with a very strong crosswind we will push down one tee to give them a chance really. 

“In terms of firmness of the course, we have reached the limit. All holes have an open approach except hole No 7 and it happens to be the shortest par three (at 144 yards). And it’s a beauty. But you have to fly over that front bunker and right now, and I’ve just been there for an hour, they are only hitting a wedge an they can’t stop it on the green.”

Vidaor is nervously watching a couple of low pressure systems that will bring 25-30 mph winds from Thursday into Friday and something “terrifying” from Saturday into Sunday.

“Let’s hope it soften a little as it approaches,” he said. “But at the moment it is looking like gale force winds.”

That would be ideal for Harrington, though he admits he could still do without the firmness of the golf course.

“I would rather see level par win this week than 18 under par,” he said:  “But you know, with a tough forecast, I would suggest that they are more likely to go easy on us with the set up than not.  So I don't have control over that." 

Asked about polar weather by a US visitor, he said: "Well, I suppose one man's polar is another man's warm.  It's pretty nice out there at the moment.  I'm sure what you would think is going to be miserable weather I'm actually looking forward to.  

“But I'm hoping for a few tough days out there for sure. As I said, the type of golf courses I win on are tough golf courses.  So I like to see the tough venues.

“I don't like playing in the rain - that would be a bit tough. But if it's windy and a bit cold, I would be happy with that.”

Harrington’s final hole bogey in Monday’s US Open Sectional Qualifier at Walton Heath leaves him needing a big week — a win or a second place here or the FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis in a fortnight —  to make the world’s Top 60 who qualify for Chambers Bay.

Having won the Irish Open at Adare in 2007, he feels less pressure at the event these days but does not believe that tournament host Rory McIlroy will suffer an ill-effects because of the extra responsibility this week.

"Rory is quite a relaxed person off the golf course,” he said. “He's not the type of guy that wants to spend eight hours out there practising and hitting shots every day. I think he’s quite happy to go out there and play without having the ideal preparation. 

“He doesn’t need to come in and play 54 holes or hit a lot of golf balls. I for one would not be discounting him.

“I think Rory's support this year has pushed it to a new level, and you know, probably a new level on the world stage more so than the European stage. It's really stepped up a gear. 

“It's very impressive.  It's where we want The Irish Open to be… It's going to be one of the events at the end of the year that anybody who wins this will be putting it right there at the top of their C.V.”

Could RCD host The Open?

Pádraig Harrington reckons Royal County Down could follow Royal Portrush as a possible Open venue.

Portrush secured its return the rota thanks to that sellout Irish Open in 2012

Now Harrington reckons Royal County Down are now putting themselves in the mix too.

He said: “If they do such a good job like Royal Portrush, it really puts their name out there.

“They will be saying, ‘We don’t just have a great golf course but we can host a great event like The Open Championship.’

“Portrush has set that stall out there and there’s no stopping them now.”

Rory can beat the fuss

Rory McIlroy can be the host with the most this week and win his first Irish Open.

That’s the view of Harrington, who reckons the world No 1 can deal with the demands of hosting the event for his Rory Foundation and still contend for the title.

Harrington said: "Rory is quite a relaxed person off the golf course.  He's not the type of guy that wants to spend eight hours out there practising and hitting shots every day. 

“I think he’s quite happy to go out there and play without having the ideal preparation. 

“He doesn’t need to come in and play  54 holes or hit a lot of golf balls. 

“I for one would not be discounting him.”

Mac ready for the off

Paul McGinley insists he’s fit and raring to go at Royal County Down - 25 years after his last appearance there as a caddie.

The 2014 Ryder Cup skipper had to pull out of the BMW PGA last week with back spasms but he won’t have to worry about toting a bag this week.

McGinley beamed: “I caddie for my dad in the 1980 Irish Close. How scary is that?

“I can’t remember coming back since but it’s a great test and I’m ready to go.

“I’ve been having treatment on my back every day since last week just to be ready for this.”

King Kev can reign

Mount Juliet’s Kevin Phelan could be a thoroughbred dark horse for Irish Open glory.

The Waterford ace was sensational for Munster when they captured the 2012 Interpros at Royal County Down.

And the 150-1 shot confessed that he loves the Newcastle links because it’s just so hard.

Phelan said: “This is probably my favourite links in the world. I got six rounds in three days up here in 2012 so I am very familiar with it and came up a few weeks ago. I love it.

“I just like hard courses and this is really hard. I like it when you can just have to plot your way around and stay patient.”

Dazza loves Gav

Darren Clarke is tipping top amateur Gavin Moynihan for big things after their Irish Open practice round.

The Walker Cup star, 20, won the Irish Amateur Open for the second time earlier this month and Ryder Cup skipper Clarke was impressed by what he saw at Royal County Down yesterday.

Clarke said: “He was very impressive this morning — a very, very talented kid. He's got wonderful control of his wedges, both left to right and right to left. 

“I tried to help him this morning and point him in the right direction of what he needs to do and he's certainly very, very receptive as to my ideas and suggestions for him to get better and improve.  

“He’s a great player now but he's got a huge amount of talent and he's got a big future ahead of him in the game.”