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The Odds Are Against Harrington

Recovering his form in time for the Ryder Cup seems a tall order

Posted Oct 15, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

harrington

Padraig Harrington is in Bermuda this week, competing in the Grand Slam of Golf and comfortably removed from the reality of regular tournament play.  Though somewhat low-key in the context of his natural competitiveness, it offers a welcome respite from a bruising season which has seen him drop among the journeymen of a game he once dominated.

This time five years ago, Harrington was the proud winner of three Major titles.  In July 2008, he retained the Open Championship in splendid style at Royal Birkdale and only a few weeks later, he carded two closing rounds of 66 to capture the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.  And the rewards came flooding in.

In the historical setting of Dublin Castle, Wilson Golf made quite a fuss about a new, three-year contact they had agreed with him to play their clubs.  Worth a reported $10 million, it was followed shortly afterwards by a $12 million deal with the American finance company, FTI.  Now in the curious way with life at the top of the sporting world, he finds himself wondering where it all went wrong, having slipped all the way from third to 101st in the world rankings.

One of the more serious aspects of his lowly position is a realisation that as things stand, he is unlikely to make next year’s Ryder Cup team.  Last January, Harrington made no secret of his delight that the 2014 European captaincy went to his boyhood friend, Paul McGinley, the player he partnered to an improbable victory in the World Cup at Kiawah Island in 1997.

“To make the team for Gleneagles, next season would have to be really exceptional for me,” he said.  “That’s the situation for any player outside the top-50 in the world.”  Harrington went on to explain that solid showings are sufficient for a player who is exempted into all the big-money tournaments such as the four Majors and the WGC events.  As things stand, however, the only two he is exempted for are the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Valhalla.  

“That’s the reality of it,” he went on. “There’s a huge difference between competing at the top end and trying to challenge for a Ryder Cup place through regular tour events.  And the last thing I’d want, would be to have Paul wondering whether I was worthy of one of his wild cards.”

There is classic irony in the fact that tee to green, Harrington is now striking the ball better than he has ever done. His problems have to do largely with an area which was once the corner-stone of his craft. After turning to the belly-putter as a last resort, he made the telling admission: “I can’t put everything together in a given week . .”  Nothing illustrated this more graphically than rounds of 66,66,72,80 in the Travelers Championship in June.  Only a little less frustrating were rounds of 76,66,64,71 to be down the field in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which he has won on two occasions.

Perhaps typical of his torment was the opening round, which happened to be at Carnoustie, the scene of his first Open triumph back in 2007.  Comfortably positioned entering the homeward journey, he was helpless to stop his game disintegrating, with the miserable culmination of bogeys at the final two holes.

“I’ve lost my confidence reading the greens,” he admitted with rare candour. “And when you lose your confidence you’re not getting your preparation done.  You’re standing over the ball and trying to figure what you’re trying to do.  And if you’re still trying to figure it when you’re making the putting stroke ……”   

As a consequence, he has lost the ability to scramble his way to a score, which was always the hallmark of the Harrington game.  I’ve lost count of the number of players from his amateur days onwards, who marvelled as his ability to string decent numbers together, even when making only occasional visits to the fairways.  In fact it is doubtful if European golf has produced a better scrambler since Seve Ballesteros.  

The great Spaniard was only 38 when the scoring touch finally deserted him after his last victory in the Spanish Open of 1995.  Harrington was 42 in August and in my view, can look to a recovery in his game only if his old putting touch manages to return.  While his many admirers will be hoping for a turn-around during the coming winter months, the experience of gifted predecessors would suggest, sadly, that the odds are against him.

- Dermot Gilleece

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