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Dermot Gilleece's Blog : Padraig Harrington

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece charts the rise of the greatest Irish golfer

Posted May 25, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece


Though it wasn't planned that way, Shane Lowry's professional debut in the European Open at the London Club this week is reminiscent of some fascinating happenings in September 1995.  They involved a player who would go on to become Ireland's finest ever golfer, after he had taken part in the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl.  

             Padraig Harrington made a memorable contribution to that particular staging, notably on the second day when he and Jody Fanagan gained a foursomes victory over John Harris and a promising teenager named Tiger Woods.  He strongly advised Lowry to experience the special joy of this biennial battle at Merion this autumn, but the newly-crowned Irish Open champion simply couldn't imagine returning to amateur ranks after his exploits at Baltray.

             Still, he will be sharing one very significant golfing milestone with the player idolised by every Irish amateur.  As it happens, Harrington also chose the European Open for his professional debut.   

             With the country still on a high after the events a week previously at Oak Hill, New York, where Philip Walton secured the winning point in a memorable Ryder Cup triumph, the first staging of the tournament at The K Club under the Smurfit banner, seemed like an ideal opportunity for an aspiring tournament professional to slip quietly into paid ranks.  In this context, the omens were decidedly good for Harrington.

             A planned practice round on the Tuesday with long-time friend, Paul McGinley, was elevated to something rather special when the pair found Bernhard Langer waiting for them on the first tee.  As things turned out, the distinguished German would go on to take the title after a play-off and would later become a hugely influential role-model in Harrington's tournament career.  And as a bonus, the professional debutant had a clubhouse locker directly beside perennial Order of Merit winner, Colin Montgomerie. 

            By Wednesday, however, the mood had changed.  With deep concern etched into his earnest young face, Harrington remarked ruefully: "Well-wishers have been telling me that there's no difference in playing as a professional.  Well I've discovered one."   He had been stunned to learn that while his 60-degree Ping L-wedge was perfectly acceptable in amateur events, it was illegal on the European Tour at that time, because of its square grooves.

            So it was that on the eve of the tournament, he began a desperate search for a club to replace one which he described as the third most important in his bag, after the driver and putter.  "I used it for everything from bunker play to chipping," he said.  Little could he have imagined that 12 years later, a similar implement would deliver the most crucial, 49-yard pitch of his career, in the Open Championship at Carnoustie.

            Eventually, the problem was solved by Headfort professional, Brendan McGovern, who generously supplied a replacement.  And it is fascinating to note that he, too, was destined to fill a critical role in Padraig's Carnoustie triumph, albeit as a vanquished opponent in the Irish Professional Championship a week previously.  

            Meanwhile, a great adventure got under way in the company of Costantino Rocca and the eventual runner-up, Barry Lane.  And a measure of Harrington's modest aspirations at the time was that he saw himself progressing ultimately to the status of no more than a journeyman pro.  And what matter if he fell short of this target:  there was always the safety net of his accountancy qualifications.

            His brother Tadhg was on his bag that week, as he had been throughout Padraig's amateur career. And there were no recriminations when rounds of 77 and 73 delivered a half-way total which was two strokes outside the cut.  As he put it himself, "I'm really thrilled to have been given this opportunity."  The ice had been broken and far more meaningful challenges lay ahead in two stages of the European Tour School, culminating on November 23rd to 28th at San Roque and Guadalmina on Spain's Costa del Sol.

            Harrington claimed 16th place in what has proved to be his only visit to the Qualifying School.  Lowry, of course, won't be going there, certainly not for the immediate future.  A European Tour exemption until the end of 2011 has taken care of that little detail.   And if the European Open proves to be as successful a launching pad as it unexpectedly became for Harrinton, Lowry may never know the trauma of the Qualifying School.  Which would be a very comforting thought.

- Dermot Gilleece

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