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Perfectly Padraig

Winning the first major is the hardest. Now watch Padraig Harrington go

February 2008

Looking back, so many things were perfect.

Starting with the putt. No, starting with the pitch. No, starting with the place, Carnoustie in Scotland. No, starting with three places: Carnoustie, Largs and Dublin. No, starting with the Scottish swing doctor Bob Torrance and the American "head" doctor Bob Rotella. No, starting with Jean Van de Velde in 1999. No, starting with Ben Hogan in 1953. No, starting with Padraig Harrington, himself, a broken-hearted amateur standing hollow-eyed on the same spot at the age of 18. No, let's start over.

At the end.

"When the playoff was done and I had won the Open Championship," Harrington says, "I had the momentary celebration you always have, and then I looked around and saw Sergio. I'm not great when it comes to faces and reading things like that. But I never saw disappointment as clearly as I could see it in his face at that moment. I felt for him. Really big-time. I did the cursory things that we all do as golfers. Commiserated. Shook his hand. 'Hard luck. You'll have your time.' I did it with as much heart as I could, but I'm not really the person for that. No player is. Only your family, only someone who truly loves you, can possibly say anything that might help at a moment like that. You know, Sergio played professional golf before I did, and I'm eight years older. He was just 14 -- we were both still amateurs -- when I first played with him at a tournament in Spain. He was the coming sensation."

Long before that, Harrington remembers following a group of Spaniards around the Stackstown Golf Club in Ireland, figuring them for more than a few lost balls. "My very first tournament," he says, "I played with the same Titleist golf ball for 54 holes, one I found at Stackstown." When you win the Open, you can't help but spin backward a little.

Before becoming the Champion Golfer of the Year, of course Harrington hit two balls into the water on the 72nd hole. For just the chance to play off against Garcia, who led him by six strokes that Sunday morning, Padraig had to get up and down for a double bogey, pitching over a burn. Not much more than a chip, actually. But the spectators reacted at impact as if he had dropped a pile of dishes.

"I enjoyed that," Harrington says. "Everybody thought I had struck it too hard. I think I laughed. As I hit the ball up in the air, I listened to the crowd go, 'Ooh, it's going too far! No, it's going to spin! It's going to spin! It's going to stop! It's going to stop!' I got such a charge out of fooling everybody. I was a kid again back at Stackstown, competing against the other kids, closest to the pin for a plate of chips and a dogwash."

STACKSTOWN
A dogwash is a drink. "The lowest form of drink," Harrington says, "a lemon cordial and lime concoction that the barman named 'dogwash' because he had to make so many of them all day." The morning after Harrington delivered pretty much all of Ireland indoors, he returned to the little "guards" course in Dublin, which his father and nine other cops built by bare hand and shovel. "One of my earliest memories was at 4 years of age," Padraig says, "helping to level a green with my feet. I was lucky. My four older brothers had to pick up stones. When I brought the claret jug to Stackstown, a junior event was on. The TileStyles tournament, my first big competition. I was coming around full circle."

On a subsequent junior day, a stern "No Slow Play" sign and a gentle head pro, Mike Kavanagh, are keeping things moving. It's a chilly Thursday. A tall young woman named Cliodhna McCarthy, wearing wire on her teeth and a down vest, says, "I had my picture taken with Padraig that day he was here. We all did. He's a lovelier man than you can hardly say. He wouldn't be telling anyone he's brilliant or anything." Cliodhna has just turned 16.

As formally as diplomats, three considerably shorter boys shake her hand and thank her for the game. One pulls out a cell phone and calls his mother straightaway. "You won't believe it," he whispers. "I played today with the girl who won the Irish Open last year." True enough, Miss McCarthy took home a silver spoon. It was a handicap tournament, however. She played off a 36.

In the vestibule of the clubhouse, name tags aren't needed to pick Padraig's father out of the photographic lineup of the founding coppers, and not just because his jaw is set exactly like his youngest son's. The eyes are equally telling. The rest of the hard men on the wall have the look of policemen everywhere, that glint of cynicism from spending 30 years being lied to every day. Padraig's father is the only one who doesn't look like a policeman.

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