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Golf Giveth, Golf Taketh Away

A tale of two former rookie stars and their demons

Posted Sep 12, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

padraig harrington

Events high up in the Swiss Alps at Crans sur Sierre last weekend, brought to mind an embryonic rivalry from 1996 on the European Tour.  That was when Thomas Bjorn got the nod over Padraig Harrington as winner of the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year Award.

It must have been a close thing.  While Bjorn celebrated his first year on tour by capturing the Loch Lomond Invitational, Harrington also had a debut victory - in the Spanish Open in Madrid.  Perhaps the decisive achievement in Bjorn’s favour had been his three wins on the Challenge Tour the previous year, which effectively secured his card.

Anyway, he and Harrington were to become friendly rivals.  And it is fascinating to consider the contrasting routes their tournament careers have taken in the years up to last weekend, when admirers of the Dubliner would have felt real hope of a revival after a sparkling, second-round 65.  Very much in keeping with recent form, however, the Dubliner went on have a lack-lustre 72 on Saturday and finished the tournament with a closing 73 which contained a dispiriting back nine of 40.

Bjorn, meanwhile, followed two opening rounds of 66 with a 67 and 65 over the weekend, which earned him a play-off against Scotland’s Lee Craig on 20-under-par.  The Dane then proceeded to win the opening hole of sudden-death with a birdie to a par, prompting him to acknowledge ruefully: “I’ve had a hard time dealing with pressure situations.”

Indeed Bjorn’s relief was palpable, given a lapse of two years since his last European victory, interestingly in the same tournament in 2011.  But what about Harrington, whose last official victory was all of five years ago?  Which of these 42-year-olds was more deserving of our support as they battled for supremacy over Crans sur Sierre?          

Victory smiles can mask deep-seated pain.  And the tone of Bjorn’s victory comments on Sunday suggests that bitter memories are still retained of the final round on the 2003 Open Championship at Royal St George’s.  That was when Major success was at his mercy when he led the field with three holes to play, only to have the dream shattered by a double-bogey on the short 16th where he took three to escape from a greenside trap. Later that fateful afternoon, he watched the unlikely figure of Ben Curtis take possession of the coveted claret jug.  

Almost exactly a year later, on the opening day of the Smurfit European Open at The K Club, Bjorn admitted to having the eerie sensation on the first tee of seeing the fairway shrink before his very eyes and the green become "no bigger than the hole".  "Why," the tortured Dane asked himself, "am I feeling like this?  Why do I have 500 thoughts running through my head when I should be thinking one shot at a time?"

By the sixth hole, he was four over par and in no state to continue.  That was when tournament director, David Garland, came to his rescue and drove him back to the clubhouse in a buggy.  The only coherent explanation Bjorn could offer the waiting media was that he was "fighting demons" and felt "unable to face the tournament situation".  He played only three further tournaments between then and the end of August, missing the cut in two of them.  And by way of acknowledging his plight, Ryder Cup skipper, Bernhard Langer, invited him onto the backroom team for what proved to be a highly successful European venture at Oakland Hills.

There was to be further pain for Bjorn at The K Club two years later, when his demons returned with a vengeance.  With the tournament at his mercy, he proceeded to finish with unimaginable figures of 6,11,6 en route to a disastrous 86 which sent him crashing down to a share of 33rd place while handing victory on a plate to England’s Kenneth Ferree.

Meanwhile, Harrington was making steady progress towards a cherished goal.  Two wins in the US in 2005 provided crucial confidence which would culminate in a Major breakthrough at Carnoustie in 2007.  And there would be further Major success when he retained the Open at Birkdale in 2008, followed by the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills a few weeks later.

All of which prompts the thought that while golf giveth, it also taketh away.  And sad and all as Harrington’s current plight might be, his rewards from the game have been immeasurably sweeter than those of the doughty Dane.

- Dermot Gilleece

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