It also served as a nice bookend to a decade in which Harrington was, unquestionably, Ireland’s greatest athlete. Yes, we know there are ignoramuses out there who do don’t believe golf is a sport. These characters can usually be found at rugby matches vigorously applauding when somebody kicks the ball out of play. If that’s an argument for another day, the basic contention here is the noughties belonged to Harrington in the same way the 1990s were, without any sliver of debate, the personal property of Roy Keane. In the early part of this decade, Keane was still magnificent but he was never the same force of nature as he had been before in the ten years before Saipan.
There are other contenders too for this title. Brian O’Driscoll is acknowledged by serious judges as one of the greatest rugby players of this or any age. His pre-eminence in his own code cannot be denied, nor can his outsized contribution to the most glorious era in the history of the game in Ireland. But, and this is a big, huge but, rugby is a minority game that is taken seriously in ten countries. By contrast, golf is a world sport.
The same can be said about the claims of Kilkenny’s Henry Shefflin. He has adorned hurling, he could well finish with 10 All-Ireland medals before he’s done, and, whatever happens, will go down as the greatest player of his generation and one of the best of all time. Heady stuff but again this is a purely domestic achievement.
Go just about anywhere on the planet today, from China to Canberra, from Montreal to Mayo, and you will find a golf course. Wherever you land, you will find people who know who Padraig Harrington is and where he hails from. The same applied to Keane when he bestrode Old Trafford. Fans of Mick Kinane, Johnny Murtagh and Tony McCoy can argue their men should be considered the Irish performers of the noughties too. Again, horse-racing, while the recipient of an oversized amount of coverage in the newspapers and on television, is another minority pursuit.
If there is no shortage of other candidates, there is only one Harrington. Some say he ended a sixty-year drought and became the second Irishman to win a major when he clinched the 2007 British Open. Others beg to differ. David Feherty once worked as an assistant to Fred Daly at Balmoral and he has pointed out ad nauseum that Daly considered himself British, not Irish. Against that background, Harrington is the first Irishman to win a major. And the first Irishman to win three in two years.
This means that on three occasions, he went out and defeated the best golfers from every country in the world on the biggest stage. Churlish fools can mention Woods’ absence in the second half of 2008 but it’s not a stretch to say the world number one wouldn’t have touched Harrington at Royal Birkdale whatever about at the USPGA. Equally, the fact Harrington can be talked about in the same breath as the greatest golfer who ever played the game is a graphic illustration of the impact the Dubliner has had this past ten years.
If Americans had the wit to vote Woods their athlete of the decade last week, despite everything that has happened over the last apocalyptic month, then surely the same accolade should go to Harrington in his homeland. Apart from closing the deal in the majors, there is the impressive manner of his rise to the top. It was slow and patient and a living, breathing testament to the virtues of hard work and serious application. Everything about this guy is worth holding up to children and saying here is somebody to admire and to learn from.
Harrington doesn’t drink or smoke and for long spells has been accompanied on his worldwide travels by his wife, Caroline. His approach to self-improvement is meticulous and holistic. No area of his life is untouched by an immense support network designed to allow him be the best that he can be. Nothing is left to chance. Everything is about tweaking and tweaking so that he may deliver when it matters most. Of course, there is another admirable element to the equation that also lends itself to his success.
Just after lunchtime on the Sunday of the 2001 PGA championship at Atlanta Country Club, the remaining contenders could be found on the putting green, waiting for the clock to tick down toward their tee times. As David Toms, Phil Mickelson and Shingo Katayama honed their blades under the gaze of a watchful crowd, Harrington was working away diligently over on the far side. Two days after missing the cut, the Dubliner and his then caddie, Dave McNeilly, were busy doing their thing beneath a blazing Georgia sun.
It was a startling sight to behold since it’s customary for golfers to skip town the moment their interest in a tournament ends. Yet, here was Harrington working up a sweat, the only man out on the course with nothing left to play for, offering up a little cameo that hammered home once more the quality of his work ethic. Six full years would pass before he finally won a major but when it came nobody would be that surprised. He never lacked for perspiration or inspiration.