DUBAI — When Padraig Harrington arrived on the European Tour in 1996, the then 24-year-old Irishman had a lot going for him. Every attribute a golfer might require to be a success in the paid ranks was in place.
Yes, the three-time Walker Cup player had a world-class putting stroke and short game. And yes, this qualified accountant had one of the most finely-tuned intellects in the game.
But ball-striking? Not so much. At that time, Harrington was a long way short of the average on tour from tee to around the green. In short, he needed a better swing.
The late Bob Torrance was the coach who gave Harrington what he needed most, a reliable full-swing that carried the Dubliner to three major championship victories, 28 other wins around the world and six Ryder Cup appearances. For more than 300 weeks, Harrington ranked among the top-10 golfers on the planet. Not too shabby, even if these days the now 48-year-old Harrington is the 342nd-best player in the world.
Which begs the question: Right now, how much is the man who will lead Europe at the Ryder Cup later this year a player and how much is he already a captain?
Clearly, Harrington remains only mildly competitive on the European circuit. A second-round 75 at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on Friday carried him through, on the number, to the weekend. But he isn’t going to win. At two-over 146, Harrington has 53 players ahead of him. Most distant is the halfway leader, Eddie Pepperell, who is alone at eight-under 136, one shot ahead of three men, including the defending champion, Bryson DeChambeau.
None of which was energizing Harrington’s active mind after he parred the final hole to guarantee his place in the third-round draw.
“I hit it all over the place,” he said, the sand on his shoes proof enough of more than one visit to the desert. “I warmed-up great, then drove it in the rough all day, which caused me a lot of stress. It was not what I was expecting going out. This is just not the golf course to be on when you’re not driving well. When you’re out of position like I was, the cut-line soon enough looms.”
Indeed, that two-over-par mark was in Harrington’s mind as soon as he completed the front nine with a double bogey on the eighth and another dropped shot on the ninth. Gone was any thought of challenging the lead.
“For the last nine holes, all I was doing was playing to make the cut, unfortunately.” Harrington said, frustratingly after a first-round 71 put him in a nice spot to start the tournament. “There are plenty of opportunities on the back nine. But I missed the putts you have to make. In my head I’m thinking if I’d made one or two I could have made three or four. But, no matter who you are, no one likes playing golf on the cut-line. It’s a horrible place to be.
“I like watching others in the situation I was in today,” he continued. “It is fascinating. But as an experienced player, making the cut should be an irrelevance to me. Completely irrelevant. But you can’t get away from it. What’s the big deal if I finish 45th or 35th? But you never stop thinking like a player. The cut-line is magnetic. If you’re two shots outside you move towards it. And if you are two inside it you do the same.”
Perhaps what Harrington needs is an injection of Lee Westwood. Last week, the 46-year-old Englishman won in Abu Dhabi, proof that those in their late-40s can still occasionally get the ultimate job done. The key, as ever, was putting. Time after time, Westwood holed-out well, a fact not lost on Harrington.
“I tell myself that. And I’m happy to be putting better. I can’t be competitive otherwise,” Harrington said. “If I keep doing that, I will have the chance to do other stuff right. Lee did that last week. He played smart golf. He holed the putts at the right time. He built momentum. He showed me how it is done.”
Still, there are other things to think about. Eight months from now, Harrington will lead the European Ryder Cup team as the Old World defends the trophy it won so handily at Le Golf National in 2018. Understandably, his on-course concentration wanders now and then as he views leader boards in search of European success.
“An element of me is looking at people and wondering how everyone is playing,” he said with a smile. “I’m hoping to see other guys go low. God help the non-Europeans, but I’m wishing the others well, although it’s hard to believe I can see someone beating me and think, That’s good. Right now, off the course I’m more than 50 percent the Ryder Cup captain. But on the course, at this stage, I’m selfish enough that I am still 80 percent a player. Those numbers will change as the year goes on I’m sure.
“Later on, it will be more obvious who is in the team,” he continued. “Then I’ll be looking at who I might pick. I see someone playing well right now and I’m thinking, Hold your form. There are eight months to go. But, at the end of the qualifying, I’ll be presented with a team. Then it is up to me what I do from there.”