As David Toms, Phil Mickelson and Shingo Katayama honed their blades under the gaze of a watchful crowd, Padraig Harrington was working away diligently over on the far side. Two days after missing the cut, the Dubliner and his caddie, Dave McNeilly, were busy doing their thing beneath a blazing Georgia sun. Watching him hold off a typical Tiger Woods charge down the stretch in the Target World Challenge in California last Sunday, that little cameo came to mind, one more reminder of the fierce work ethic that has brought him to a heady eighth in the world rankings.
After shooting a spectacular course record of 63 in the third round at Sherwood Country Club, Harrington shocked some observers when he made his way straight to the practice range. Never mind that he had just come within a lipped out putt of making four eagles in one day or that he was nursing an overnight lead of six shots from Woods, there was still work to be done. Worried about his chip shots and bunker play, he put in a couple of hours fine tuning on Saturday evening that stood him in good stead during a helter-skelter back nine on Sunday. This sort of diligence is one of the primary reasons why Harrington has improved his position in the world rankings in all but one year since turning pro in 1995. In that time, only Woods and Sergio Garcia have risen faster. Good company for any golfer to be keeping.
The Target World Challenge is not a major, nor even a U.S. Tour event proper, but it is a tournament containing an elite field of 16 of the best players on the planet. Anyone doubting how serious the participants take it only had to witness Woods’s curt refusal to talk to the NBC cameras when he walked off the 18th green in second place. As host of the tournament — it is a fundraiser for his eponymous charitable foundation — the greatest player of them all would have been expected to mouth a few inanities for the benefit of the television audience. As we know however, losing doesn’t come easily to Woods and he needed some time to calm down before offering his thoughts. There’s probably no better barometer of the worth of any tournament than his reaction in defeat.
While Woods is not used to people refusing to wilt when he puts the pressure on, he was up against somebody who’s been preparing meticulously for the sort of conditions he met last Sunday. Eighteen months ago, Harrington was paired with Woods for the final round of the U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa. With both men out of contention, it seemed innocuous enough and probably was looked upon that way by most people. Except when Harrington was talking to the press beforehand, he spoke lucidly about how he was looking to learn from playing in the circus-like atmosphere that surrounds Tiger at major tournaments. With only money at stake that day (not much of a consideration at the level where these guys operate), he saw this as the perfect opportunity to experience something that might stand him in good stead down the line. And so it proved.
Even before he managed three top 10 finishes out of four in this year’s majors, Harrington had begun to impact on wider audiences. The respected golf magazines have been routinely describing him as the most improved player in the game for some time, and Sports Illustrated last summer rated him third in a top 10 among those who haven’t won a major. A backhanded compliment for sure, yet only Mickelson and Garcia were placed above him in the category. And just to prove that time is on his side in that regard, of the rest of the players in the world top 20 at the moment, the 31-year-old is younger than everyone but the Spaniard and Woods. Last Sunday’s triumph was his fourth in 13 months, the seventh of his career, and more evidence that he is Ireland’s foremost sporting ambassador right now.
He doesn’t drink or smoke (making a rare exception when the champagne was flowing after the Ryder Cup win to which he contributed so significantly in September), and is accompanied on his worldwide travels by his wife, Caroline. His childhood sweetheart, she walks every round with her husband, and is a crucial member of a well-structured support team, designed to ensure Harrington gets the maximum return on his ability. If it helps that his own approach is so meticulous that he reads one sports psychology book per week to keep himself mentally focused, there is another element to the equation that also lends itself to his success.
Ask the thousands of Minnesotans who lined the first fairway at last summer’s PGA championship at Hazeltine for a word to describe Harrington and most of them will say “tough.” Shortly before his 12:10 p.m. tee time for the third round there, he sprained his neck and was in so much discomfort that his very participation was in doubt. Even after teeing off on the first hole, he required intensive treatment from his chiropractor Dale Richardson before he could take his second shot. As Richardson tried to alleviate the pain by violently manipulating his head, those in the huge galleries were audibly groaning at the horrific sound of bones clicking in Harrington’s neck just yards away from them. Despite being barely able to swing the club, he persevered and carved out a courageous double bogey on the first hole to slip from even par to 2-over and well out of contention.
Playing the remaining 35 holes in pain, he still finished just one shot away from another top 10 finish in a major. It was a remarkable performance. A remarkable guy. Ireland’s sportsman of the year? We think so.