Last days of the hustler; Harrington laments lost art

Last days of the hustler; Harrington laments lost art

Only Pádraig Harrington could mention Ray Clemence, Pat Jennings, the yips and being hustled out of a pound by an older brother 30 years ago and still keep a room full of cynical hacks enthralled for 45 minutes.

As he prepared to defend the Honda Classic at PGA National this week, the 44-year old is clearly an elder statesman of the game, going as far as to lament the decline in the art of hustling.

Daniel Berger, last year’s PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, admits to becoming another of the Stackstown man’s acolytes having being taken under his wing since losing out to him on the second extra hole of a playoff last year.

“I think of Pádraig like a friend,” Berger said with a grin. “I've been out to dinner with him probably five or ten times since then. He doesn't let it go; he'll let me know every time that he won the Honda Classic.”

Like Shane Lowry and newcomer Paul Dunne, losing money to Harrington in credit card roulette in the restaurant or around the chipping green, is a rite of passage.

Harrington believes it’s crucial to remember that he double bogeyed the 71st hole last year and still went on to win.

No disaster, no matter how definitive it seems, is as bad as you might think.

“We are all led to believe that you can’t hit disaster shots, but it’s not true, you can,” Harrington said, recalling how Rory McIlroy found water on the 71st hole in Dubai and Graeme McDowell had several doubles on the first hole in the OHL Classic in Mexico last year and still won. 

“You might not get away with it but you can recover."

The classic example, of course, is Harrington’s first major win in the 2007 Open at Carnoustie, where he got up and down for a six on the 72nd hole and went on to beat Sergio Garcia in a playoff.

It’s the kind of thing that Harrington’s idol would have done in his heyday.

Asked his heroes as a 12 year old, he said: “Ray Clemence, the goal keeper. I was interested in football. Pat Jennings.”

Smiling at the blank looks amongst the assembled media, he added: “As regards golf, it would have been Bernhard Langer. Why? He was the professional’s professional. Got the most out of his game. Came back from the yips twice. That's just unheard of.”

Harrington admits that he may never recover fully from the yips but like a late double bogey, he sees no reason why they have to be utterly fatal for him as a competitor.

“I don't think you ever fully come back from it, no,” he said when asked if he was over the dreaded heebie-jeebies. “But certainly I feel a lot better on the greens, a lot less stress knocking in 2- and 3-footers. 

“It has not quite cleared up, but I'm pretty positive about it all, and I see some good signs going ahead. A lot less work involved on the greens for me at the moment.”

Harrington — who is joined in the field by Lowry, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell — likes what he sees from Berger but laments that too many of the new breed lack the kind of hustler’s grit that was imbued in him as the youngest of five brothers.

“If you want to be a professional golfer out here, really you've got to ultimately learn to hustle a bit, and he has that," Harrington explained. “He’s a fighter and if he hits a bad shot, he'll try and get it up-and-down. 

"He won't worry about the bad shot, and you kind of get that when you're competing a lot and out there. The word we would use is hustle. 

“That's kind of missing in golf nowadays. Everything is ordered. It's all academies and things like that.

“A lot of the reason why Irish golf has done well is we were always brought up playing matches, playing games, competing. 

“I don't think I ever spent a day in my golf club where I wasn't trying to win something off somebody. You know, that ultimately gets the focus.

“The best practice I do out here on tour is when the other Irish guys are out here, and a few other guys if I can, I play chipping contests, and it's all about the competitive edge. I think Daniel has that, I've got to say. He has that sort of attitude out there. He likes the fight, which is a good place to be if you want to be a professional golfer.”

Harrington’s mental toughness came naturally. He’s the youngest of five boys.

Young Pádraig at Stackstown in the 1980s.

Young Pádraig at Stackstown in the 1980s.

“I learned my hustle at Stackstown Golf Club competing with my brothers, competing with my friends,” he said.

“I remember one story - playing against my brother, Columb, in a game. I was just coming to the stage where I was able to beat him. He’s nine years older, so maybe I was around 14 years of age, and we were playing for a pound. It was back in the 80s, but it was enough.

“And the fifth hole, I've got like this little putt to go 1-up, and just as I'm about to take it, he says, ‘Oh, it's a pity there are no more birdie holes.’

“As I'm standing over this, I'm thinking, ‘But the par 5 is reachable in two and I'm going make birdie on that one.’ 

“Of course I was thinking about the 7th and missed the putt. He completely put off to take me out, distracted me. 

“That pound note hung in my mother's kitchen, I should say, for probably 20 years. So I looked at that; that was the last pound he won off me, and it was pinned on the wall for 20 years.”

Few players enjoy the banter of hustling more than Harrington though he believes Phil Mickelson is the king of the modern tour players.

"If you're allowed talk, you'd probably give it to Phil Mickelson," he said of his close friend. "In terms of pure being able to give verbal out there in a friendly game, obviously you can't do that in a competitive game, Phil is pretty good at hustling and bustling his competitors.

"In terms of physically on the golf course, we all let our clubs do the talking on the golf course. I think over the years, even against Daniel when I went home, everybody said I won the playoff when I shook hands with him, as in -- whatever they were saying, they were saying like I had used my eyes in some way to intimidate him in shaking his hand. I was just shaking his hand and wishing him good luck, but it's amazing how people read into things like that."