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Harrington the godfather of Ireland’s stunning run to Major glory

Between July 2007 and August 2014, Irish golfers won nine Major titles. Nine out of a possible 28, a staggering strike rate of just over 32pc. Shane Lowry's triumph at Portrush last summer made it 10 in 12 years. Only the US has won more. Augusta and that coveted green jacket remain elusive, though, and in what should have been Masters week, Vincent Hogan traces the extraordinary evolution of Ireland into a golfing superpower

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FAMOUS DAY: Shane Lowry with the Claret Jug last year. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

FAMOUS DAY: Shane Lowry with the Claret Jug last year. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

FAMOUS DAY: Shane Lowry with the Claret Jug last year. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Bob Rotella remembers a remarkable comment Pádraig Harrington made to him while walking to the first-play-off hole at the 2007 Open Championship in Carnoustie.

"When you see me waving to the gallery, you and I will be the only two who know that I'm not really waving to the gallery," he told Rotella. "I'm holding the Claret Jug to the sky!"

Harrington had double-bogeyed his 72nd hole to be pitched into that play-off against Sergio Garcia, yet was now walking fearlessly to the tee. For even Rotella, the moment felt revelatory. His career as one of the world's most revered golf psychologists has been predicated on the conviction that such moments of destiny can be sabotaged by allowing the mind "slip out of the present and into the future".

But Harrington betrayed not a sliver of uncertainty at that moment and, four holes later, had become the first European winner of a Major in eight years and first Irishman to hold the Claret Jug since Fred Daly in 1947.

Changed

Harrington's win that day changed the face of Irish golf.

One year later, he became the first European since James Braid in 1906 to retain the title and, of course, three weeks after that, ended a 78-year wait for a European victory at the USPGA Championship. Three Major titles in 13 months.

Since those wins, seven other Majors have come Ireland's way, a remarkable statistic bettered in that time-frame only by the United States.

So that Carnoustie success begat those of Graeme McDowell (2010 US Open), Rory McIlroy (2011 US Open, 2012 USPGA, 2014 Open, 2014 USPGA), Darren Clarke (2011 Open) and, most recently, Shane Lowry (2019 Open). Of golf's most treasured titles, only Augusta and that green jacket remains elusive.

But Harrington hadn't just emerged out of some mysterious vacuum.

After he and Paul McGinley won the World Cup at Kiawah Island in '97, he spoke to American journalists of Christy O'Connor senior's influence on their lives and the interaction they so cherished with the great man in Links Society outings through the winter months.

Nine years before that, Eamonn Darcy, Des Smyth and Ronan Rafferty had combined to win the Dunhill Cup, a feat matched two years later (1990) by the team of David Feherty, Philip Walton and Rafferty.

Harrington had seen too how so many Irish players grasped marquee Ryder Cup moments: Darcy beating Ben Crenshaw at Muirfield in '87 for what US captain Jack Nicklaus would call "the final nail in our coffin"; Christy junior's extraordinary two-iron to beat Fred Couples at The Belfry in '89; Philip Walton's vital win against Jay Haas at Oak Hill in '95, a feat that drew 5,000 to Dublin airport to see the Cup arrive via Concorde (just four years before Walton would lose his playing card); McGinley's putt for the crucial half against Jim Furyk at The Belfry in '02.

Harrington himself was on that '02 team, hammering Mark Calcavecchia 5&4 in those Sunday singles.

Yet, it was his breakthrough Major win that became a tipping point.

By then, he'd begun hitching Rotella's insight to work on whatever swing gremlins were identifiable to the knowledgeable eye of Bob Torrance. Harrington was relentless in pursuit of answers or, as he still puts it, "the secret of golf".

McDowell's path to glory at Pebble Beach in 2010 found a different arc, the Portrush native abandoning a degree course in mechanical engineering at Queen's University to take up a golf scholarship at the University of Alabama.

It was college golf that gave him the desire for a pro career, McDowell taking the plunge in '02 and winning the Scandinavian Masters with only his fourth start on the European Tour.

Like McIlroy, he would cite Clarke who - as a Dungannon teenager - worked behind the bar of "the most bombed clubhouse in Northern Ireland" - as his inspiration. Clarke who famously defeated Tiger Woods 4&3 in the 2000 final of the World Match-Play Championship at La Costa, winning a $1,000,000 first prize.

How extraordinary that these three men, who grew up within an hour's drive of one another, would all win Majors within a calendar year.

volatile Rotella was, reputedly, a key figure for Clarke at Royal St George's too, encouraging an often volatile player to play with "a very quiet mind".

So, between July '07 and August '14, Irish golfers won nine Majors. Nine out of a possible 28 essentially. A strike-rate just over 32 per cent. Staggering.

Yet, that six-year gap to world No 1 McIlroy's last Major preoccupies us today and would - in different circumstances - most likely have been energising fevered debate right now in Augusta, Georgia.

For McIlroy, the early part of this week should have been the equivalent of sitting on Jennifer Melfi's couch then. Dr Melfi: "Do you want to tell me what you're thinking?" Tony Soprano: "Believe me you don't want to know. You want to know what I'm thinkin'? Seriously? I'm thinking I'd like to take a brick and smash your f***ing face into a f***ing hamburger!"

Except that's not how Rory rolls, of course. If anything, he relishes the narrowness of Masters-week focus, the resilient drumbeat of questions echoing down from one year to the next. Questions about that career Grand Slam, about joining those gods of the game - Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Player and Woods.

McIlroy dials into that conversation more enthusiastically than sometimes seems rational.

His Tuesday press-conference before last year's Masters duly took media to precisely where we wanted to be taken.

Rory arrived as pre-tournament favourite - having posted seven top ten finishes in his previous eight events, including a victory at Sawgrass - to tell us of his ball-juggling, his mind-training, the self-help books he was reading.

He opened the blinds too on a relationship with Dr Clayton Skaggs, the mysterious figure observed next to him on the driving-range. He used expressions like "I am not my score, I am not my results", expressions I suggested - at the time - sounded like "some kind of invoiced line from a psychologist's manual".

And he then endured his worst Masters since the 2011 Sunday meltdown, leaking 14 bogeys in his opening three rounds.

But the golf media loves McIlroy for good reason. He engages with them. He stretches and develops answers. He takes journalists beyond a thumbnail understanding of this life he lives, beyond the hollow façade favoured by so many peers, the trotting out of tired anecdote and easy cliché. McIlroy is interesting and open-minded in what can seem a self-absorbed, cataract-clouded world.

He carries it in his body-language.

Earlier this year, when interviewed by Paul Kimmage for the Sunday Independent, he mentioned how he'd taken to writing down thoughts in a journal. So Kimmage brought him back to Portush last July and that missed 'cut' at his 'home' Open.

Kimmage: "Stay with Sunday and the flight back from Portrush. You said you wrote about ten pages in your journal?"

McIlroy: "Yeah."

Kimmage: "What did you write?"

McIlroy: "I'll go and get it…"

Who does that? What other world number one, in an authentically global game, slips away to get their notes so that they might answer a journalist's question fully?

Rory is the most gifted of Ireland's modern Major winners. A natural superstar. Someone Oli Fisher - the first player in European Tour history to shoot 59 - likens to snooker player Ronnie O'Sullivan in his possession of "a rare eye for seeing a shot and being able to hit the ball straight down that line."

Quality

Who the 2018 Ryder Cup captain, Thomas Bjorn, describes as "the only guy I would pay to watch".

Lowry often recalls nine holes of practice played with McIlroy on the Wednesday of the 2011 US Open at Congressional and coming away "feeling like a ten-handicapper" such was the quality of the soon-to-be-crowned champion's play.

The two came to know one another from Boys' international weekends at Carton House spent under the tutelage of Neil Manchip. McIlroy always looked someone destined for superstardom, for a life spent in the drench of celebrity.

At Portrush, his scorecard from the day he shot a course-record 61 is immortalised behind glass. A score shot at just 16.

Harrington never had that purity to his talent. He found the game tougher to negotiate with, the edge to his play coming from an insatiable appetite for self-examining. He has always been deep in his own world, yet resolutely, defiantly open too.

In Michael Calvin's 'Mind Game - The Secrets of Golf's Winners', Harrington recalls missing out on the Irish Youths title at Dundalk as an 18-year-old when a two-stroke lead was relinquished with three closing bogeys. The word "choker" was used within earshot afterwards, reducing him to tears.

That, he says, was the moment he realised his need for a sports psychologist.

As a professional, he would win his first European Tour title in '96, yet eventually became accustomed to a media fixation on his accumulation of 29 runner-up finishes. He tells Calvin: "People wanted to pigeonhole me into a certain category. The media assumed it was due to something similar (to Dundalk). There were a few clusters, but in fact there were half a dozen categories.

"Some of them, I lost through being ahead and relaxing. Some I lost to hitting bad shots under pressure. Some I shot a great round to finish second. In others, somebody holed a putt to beat me and I could do nothing about it.

"All 29 second places were learning experiences. You understand how to read a situation and that's the one thing I can do really well now, coming down the stretch. I can understand what the other players are doing, how they are feeling, what's likely to happen, who is the threat.

"What do I have to do? Do I need to push on or is that guy going to come back to me?"

Hindsight suggests that Harrington's win at Carnoustie in '07 was something slowly brewing. He'd been in a winning position in the US Open at Winged Foot the year before and became only the second player to beat Tiger Woods in a play-off (after Billy Mayfair at the '98 Nissan Open) when winning the '06 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan.

Silver medal

In April '07, he'd finished joint seventh at Augusta, just two shots behind the winner, Zach Johnson, on a weekend McIlroy lost a West of Ireland quarter-final to Paul Cutler at Rosses Point.

Rory was already, by then, world No 2-ranked amateur and would, of course, secure the coveted silver medal at that year's Open.

Two years after Carnoustie, Lowry became only the third amateur to win a European Tour event, taking the Irish Open at Baltray. Harrington, who missed the 'cut' despite shooting what he considered "a great score" on the Friday, was driving home when he heard that an amateur had been seven shots better.

His reaction?

"He'll blow up. Amateurs always blow up."

But Shane Lowry didn't. McIlroy, his former amateur partner, was waiting greenside with a bottle of champagne as the Clara man edged out England's Robert Rock in a rain-soaked play-off. If Rock had the consolation of a winner's cheque for half a million euro, the golf world had eyes only for one European that week.

More than a decade later, Lowry would have savoured the challenge of Augusta this week as Open champion, just as Mallow's James Sugrue would as champion amateur.

And Harrington would have been there in his capacity as Europe's Ryder Cup captain, the third Irishman in that role from the last four renewals.

Professor

He is the godfather of this story, the one who changed Ireland's relationship with golf Majors. A nerd of the game in many ways, or "a little bit of a nutty professor" as Bjorn affectionately puts it.

Rotella, after all, commits two entire chapters of his book 'Your 15th Club - The Inner Secret to Great Golf' to their relationship, calling one of them 'What I learned from Pádraig Harrington.'

Even for him, even for one of the most revered minds in the game, there has always been more to gain from a conversation with Padraig Harrington than to give.

"He'll tell me what he thinks he needs to do to get better," wrote Rotella in 2008. "He's usually right. My role becomes nodding, patting him on the back and saying, 'Go get 'em!"

Which Harrington duly did.