To the surprise of absolutely no one, Padraig Harrington will captain the European team that will defend the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits next year. At a press conference held in the clubhouse at the Wentworth Club just outside London—next door to the European Tour’s headquarters—the three-time major champion was unveiled as the successor to Thomas Bjorn.
The third Irishman to lead the Old World side since 2014 after Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke, Harrington was a racing certainty to be offered the job as soon as main rival Lee Westwood announced that he would not be a candidate until the 2022 matches in Rome.
In contrast, it was “now or never” for Harrington. With Adare Manor in county Limerick tipped to be a strong candidate to host the biennial matches in 2026, there was a slight temptation to wait and perhaps be skipper on home ground. But it was a fleeting thought for a man 47 years old.
“That would be too late,” he said. “Too late for me to wait for that. It would be too much of a risk. I would be somewhat out of touch with players by 2026, and there will be a lot of good players coming on the scene by 2026, good players who are playing now who would be looking for the captaincy. That would create a risk I’d never get the job. As much as I’d like to be the captain in Ireland, I think the risk outweighed the reward of waiting.”
An vice captain in the last three biennial contests and six times a player between 1999 and 2010—he finished on the winning side four times and scored 10½ points from his 25 matches—Harrington will bring a wealth of experience to his latest role, both on and off the course. Winner of the 2006 European Tour Order of Merit and the 2008 PGA Tour player of the year, the Dubliner (who is also a qualified accountant) is known as one of the most affable and quotable members of the professional golf fraternity. His interviews, whether one-on-one or surrounded by reporters, are legendary for both their length and depth.
As ever, he was not short of things to say during his introductory press conference.
“I’ve learned from every one of the nine captains I have played and served under,” Harrington said. “I’ll take bits from all of them. So hopefully I’ll say the right things at the right time. I’m not the warm and fuzzy type, so I may be more of a Bernhard Langer-style captain. Paul McGinley took the job to another level and that’s a requirement now. We have more than 18 months to go, but it is a full-time job now.
“In retrospect I learned most from Darren Clarke’s captaincy,” Harrington said. “There were curve balls in there for him. But I like that Thomas relied on his vice-captains last year. I’ll be doing that, too. I will want them to handle a lot of the details so that I can make good decisions. That worked well in France.
“I’m very pleased with the support I’ve had from the players. I’ve spoken to them privately and publicly, I know they want continuity. And hopefully their confidence in me will be well-placed.”
Just as importantly, perhaps no one on the European Tour is more temperamentally and intellectually attuned to the nuances and “dark art” that is head-to-head match play. As an amateur, Harrington represented Great Britain & Ireland in three Walker Cup matches against the United States and owned a phenomenal record when representing his home nation.
“I'm proud that I never lost a singles match in either the Home Internationals [which features teams from Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales] or the European Team Championships, and that for 18 months before I turned professional, I was never beaten in Ireland over 36 holes, in qualifying events or stroke play,” he says.
“If it hadn't been for my unbeaten record in singles for Ireland I wouldn't have turned professional. In those Internationals, I was coming up against the cream of the amateur crop at their peak and I wasn't losing to them. That, more than anything, convinced me to turn professional. If I had been losing my singles matches for Ireland no question, I'd have gone on to be an accountant.”
There is also no danger of this outwardly amiable Dubliner being intimidated by anything the American crowds will throw at him and his men at Whistling Straits. When it comes to that sometimes distasteful stuff, Harrington has seen pretty much it all. In his Ryder Cup debut back in 1999, as behavior deteriorated drastically outside The Country Club ropes, he was maybe the one European player who actually enjoyed what was for others, in particular Colin Montgomerie, an experience to forget.
“Ireland in 2006 at the K Club was never my best Ryder Cup,” says Harrington, who lost four matches out of five that week on his home soil. “But it was lovely. The atmosphere was great. Just like it was in Boston in 1999. I loved it. I know it was horrific for some of my teammates—the crowd did cross the line with Monty—but that is why everyone watches.
“It’s not like anyone is coming over the ropes. No one is throwing pound coins or bottles. There is no physical aspect to it. And there never will be. Not even close. I’m a believer in ‘sticks and stones.’ So I’d be laughing at that more than anything. I wouldn’t want to have people putting me off during a shot, but in-between is fine. 1999 was actually my most awesome experience ever.”
The announcement comes less than a week after Harrington revealed he suffered a broken wrist in December that will prevent him from playing until at least February. Harrington is using a one-time exemption for being in the top 50 on the career PGA Tour money list in order to secure playing privileges in 2019 in the U.S., and hopes to return to play at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am next month.
Looking forward rather than back, Harrington, as he intimated, already enjoys the support of many leading players. Almost immediately following Europe’s victory at Le Golf National last year, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose were quick to endorse the former Open and PGA champion’s suitability for the job.
“I’ve always thought Padraig would be a good captain in the United States,” McIlroy said. “He’s won a lot of golf tournaments over there.”
Rose was even more emphatic. Speaking at the British Masters only days after Europe’s ninth triumph in the last 12 matches, the former U.S. Open champion called Harrington “the clear front-runner.”
Bjorn, one of the five men (the last three skippers, a member of the European Tour tournament committee and chief executive Keith Pelley) charged with making this latest appointment, was equally glowing in his praise, even before today’s announcement.
“I’ve always said when you’ve got somebody that’s a three-time major champion and has the pedigree that Padraig has and holds the respect of the players that he does, it would be difficult to see him not doing it at some stage,” said the Dane. “And if he wants it this time around, it’s difficult to get around that he is very much the favorite to get the job.”
Well, Harrington did want it, even if he recognizes the inherent risks.
“It is daunting,” he says. “It’s all or nothing, win or lose. It will reflect on my career, depending on how it goes. When you are a Ryder Cup captain you are putting your legacy on the line. Which is not to say I wasn’t ever going to not do it. But I wanted to be sure I was doing it for the right reasons and felt I could add to it.”