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Work In Progress

Throughout Padraig Harrington's golf career, improvement has been an important--and constant--part of the plan

Padraig Harrington

Harrington's career pattern of gradual improvement mirrors that of Ben Hogan.

July 25, 2008

Padraig Harrington is distinctive among his peers in many ways. There's the jaunty walk that would come off as insufferably cocky if his face weren't so boyish and his smile so open. There's his habit of starting nearly every sentence with a nasal "eh." There's the frequent grace note, which on Sunday at Royal Birkdale included making time to sign dozens of autographs for mostly young fans before ever taking a swing on the practice ground, and offering sincere tribute to his vanquished playing partner, Greg Norman, at the trophy presentation.

"It looked like it was going to be his story that was told today," said Harrington. "It would have been a fantastic story. Yet his response to all my good shots was just tremendous. Greg is somebody you can always look up to."

But Padraig Harrington is distinguished as a golfer principally by what the Japanese call kaizen: the process of constant, gradual improvement.

Ben Hogan remains golf's exemplar of kaizen. When he was in his 60s and years removed from competition, he told an interviewer, "If I didn't think I could still improve, I'd quit." His main disciples have included Lee Trevino, Tom Kite and Vijay Singh—oh, and Tiger Woods, whose stated mantra is, "The greatest thing about tomorrow is I will be better than I am today."

Harrington, in his journey from pudgy junior accountant (210 pounds) to wiry double major winner (190 pounds), has earned a place at their table. "I've got to say if you were to ask me my best trait over the years, it's always been my ability to learn, to look around me, see what's out there, take the best from everything and try to put it together," he said after his greatest victory so far. "I enjoy that end of things."

Which is why the 36-year-old now has plodded past so many others who were presumed to have more talent and potential. It's Harrington who after a couple of skipped generations finally picked up the multiple-major mantle that was the European legacy of Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, José Maria Olazábal, Sandy Lyle and especially the Ryder Cup captain who will be counting on him in September, Nick Faldo. Harrington is now No. 3 on the World Ranking, and with Tiger Woods out for the year and Phil Mickelson a subdued force in the majors ever since Winged Foot (the left-hander has but one top-10 in his last nine majors), he is arguably the best active player in the world.

It's not what anyone expected from the kid who grew up on a rudimentary course south of Dublin, Stackstown GC, that his late father, Paddy, and fellow Irish policemen dug out of a hillside. There, Harrington learned to chip and putt, but he was so unsure about a professional future that he played on three Walker Cup teams and earned a degree in accounting before finally scratching his way onto the European Tour in 1995.

Because his swing and ball-striking were marginal at best, it was easy to overlook his natural discipline and determination; an unflappable competitive temperament; that he was a natural games player like his father, a famous Gaelic footballer and hurler as well as a late-to-the-game 5-handicapper who his son says was "a genius for scoring;" or that being the youngest of five supportive brothers bred a confidence and positive spirit that gave him an armor against the game's insults.

"I was always a guy who didn't take much notice of my strengths because I was too preoccupied with my deficiencies," Harrington told Golf Digest earlier this year. "I didn't expect to be a star in the game of golf. I was never destined to be a star. I didn't have the swing for it. Everybody said so."

But because, as his wife Caroline says, "Padraig's very averse to ever standing still as he's sure people will pass him," Harrington kept at kaizen.

At first it manifested itself in a disproportionate number of second-place finishes (at the beginning of 2001 he had four European tour wins and 15 seconds). The wins began to come (now 11 regular European Tour events, two regular PGA Tour events and two British Opens), although the disappointments in majors were frequent, especially at Muirfield in the 2002 British, where he finished one shot out of a playoff, and at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S. Open, where he led on Saturday until a triple bogey on the 18th and lost by two shots when he finished with three straight bogeys Sunday. Harrington got over this last hurdle last year at Carnoustie, but just barely when he shakily went into the water twice on the 72nd hole but dug deep to rescue a double bogey to get into a playoff with Sergio Garcia.

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