Irish eyes are smiling on Harrington

Updated: September 20, 2006, 12:20 PM ET
By Tim Rosaforte | Golf World

Padraig Harrington never thought he would be much more than a journeyman golfer on the European Tour. He never assumed he would be good enough to play in a Ryder Cup. And he never pictured his face appearing on billboards all over Ireland, welcoming visitors to the largest sporting event in his country's history. Poster boy? Hardly. Notoriety was never part of the game plan for the overachieving son of a Rathfarnham policeman.

But Harrington, 35, accepted the role of ambassador with a practicality that comes from his blue-collar background and humble beginnings on the world stage. He fits the working-class hero mold and embodies the Irish look and spirit.

"Padraig has become the face of golf in Ireland," says Damian Ryan, the director of golf for Ireland's National Tourism Development Authority. "He has this great smile, a good Irish walk up the fairways and he always has time for everybody."

What sold Ryan was a scene he witnessed a couple of years ago at Firestone CC in Akron, Ohio, during the WGC-NEC Invitational. Two boys were making noise beside a green. Harrington paused before putting and said in a calm voice, "Hey lads, just give me a minute." The children stopped chatting, Harrington made his putt and thanked the kids. It wasn't exactly the way Colin Montgomerie would have handled it.

"That's the type of man he is," Ryan says. "That's the man I was looking for."

Friends from Rathfarnham, where Harrington grew up in a modest three-bedroom house with four brothers, tease him about his image appearing on a bus shelter next to the X-Men. They are more familiar with the Padraig Harrington who gives a boyish smile when interviewers ask him if he knows the rock star Bono or any other members of the band U2 ("I wouldn't know them from Adam," he says. "I don't think they're interested in golf."). They recall the chap who says he's the only Irishman who doesn't drink Guinness ("As far as I know, he's only had two drinks in his life," says brother Tadhg. "After both Ryder Cup wins, he had a Jack Daniels and Coke."); and the one who has only dated one woman in his life.

He met his future wife, Caroline, at a junior tournament at Stackstown GC. It took him six months to summon the courage to ask her out.

"We saw 'Road House' with Patrick Swayze," he says.

Sadly, the person who instilled Harrington with the work ethic that has helped yield two PGA Tour victories and now four Ryder Cup appearances, will not be with him at The K Club for next week's matches. Paddy Harrington, Padraig's father, died of cancer in 2005. To understand how the son whose early reputation was characterized by slow play and runner-up finishes on the European Tour broke through to become the point man on Ian Woosnam's European Ryder Cup team, you need look no further than the father.

Rathfarnham is a working-class village on the south side of Dublin, wedged up against a mountain range that overlooks the city no more than 20 miles from The K Club. It was high on this plateau above the capital where, some 30 years before the Ryder Cup would come to Ireland, Paddy Harrington and his friends on the police force built a golf course among the rocks, heather and gorse.

Paddy was more sportsman than golf course architect, famous in Cork as a Gaelic football star and a hurler before moving to Dublin, where he joined the Garda and was entrusted with a rugged piece of ground to build a course for the police officers. Paddy would become the club's patriarch. It was at Stackstown GC where his sons -- Tadhg, Columb, Fintan, Fergal and Padraig -- learned the game. Padraig, the youngest, was only 4 when he started to trace his father's footsteps around the mountainside.

"He used to gather up stones and chase rabbits," his mother, Breda, remembers.

There's no doubt Paddy would have been thrilled to see his son have such a prominent role in the Ryder Cup, but as he said before his death, "I have no right to take pride from his success." Paddy stayed in the background, never forcing himself or the sport on his youngest son.

"My dad had his own sporting career, so he never tried to live his life through me or gain glory through me," Harrington says. "Even today, if you go down to Cork, I'm still known as his son, rather than him being Padraig Harrington's father."

From Stackstown you can see across the city of Dublin to Croke Park, where more than 100,000 watched Paddy play center halfback for Cork in the 1956 and 1957 All-Ireland finals. (Fifty years later, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the country's biggest sporting body, has moved the equivalent of Ireland's Super Bowl up a week so it won't conflict with the Ryder Cup.) Whether it was football, hurling, golf or boxing, the elder Harrington played with a mix of fierce abandon and fairness.

"He never got [penalized] in his life, something he was proud of," Padraig says.

As a boxer, Paddy won the Garda Championship, but he felt so bad for his bloodied opponent that he never boxed again.

The club captain at Stackstown, Paddy would not stand for inappropriate behavior on the golf course, and his sons would never want anything to reflect poorly on their dad. He passed down the psychology of sport and the art of getting the ball in the hole. He was a 5-handicap and won 44 prizes at the club.

"He was a genius for scoring," Padraig recalls. "He thought getting the ball in the hole was more important than the technical aspects of the game."

Michael Kavanagh, Stackstown's head pro, remembers Padraig as a boy who spent all day on the practice green. When he played, he always turned in a card, no matter what the score.

"Paddy instilled in him the sense that if you want to be good at something, you had to put in the time," says Kavanagh.

As Paddy told Dermot Gilleece in the Irish Independent before his passing, "Whether [Padraig] was playing Gaelic football, soccer or golf, he had a brilliant temperament. Nothing seemed to faze him. And the more knocks he got, the more determined he would be to bounce back and succeed the next time."

Ask Harrington to name his most distinctive characteristic and he says without hesitation, "Determination."

One of Padraig's strongest traits is honesty, almost to a fault. Although he played on three Walker Cup teams -- including the 1995 team that beat a Tiger Woods-led U.S. squad at Royal Porthcawl, he never considered himself among Europe's elite amateurs and went to night school to learn accounting as a backup should his golf career not pan out. With an awkward swing, Harrington barely drove the ball 250 yards. He made his way through the European Tour's Qualifying School in 1995 with Tadhg on the bag -- but the golfer who won the Peugeot Spanish Open in 1996 in no way resembles the world-class player of today.

"If you saw a clip of me, you would not believe the way I swung the club," Harrington says. "I also [weighed] 15 stone, about 210 pounds. I was fat, no question about it."

The tournament that made Harrington realize he never would be more than a journeyman unless he went through a metamorphosis was the 1997 U.S. Open at Congressional, where he missed the cut at 12 over par. After that performance, instructor Bob Torrance tightened up his swing, and Harrington lost 20 pounds in the gym. Still, winning didn't come easily. The cruelest blow in his perplexing runner-up streak -- he was second 15 times, with three relatively minor European Tour wins, before a breakthrough at the 2002 Dunhill Links Championship -- came during the final round of the 2000 Benson and Hedges International Open. Five shots ahead entering the final round, Harrington was disqualified because of a scoring error even though playing partner Michael Campbell, who inadvertently signed the card twice, made the mistake. Instead of becoming a martyr, Harrington earned respect by accepting the defeat the way his father would.

"You get much better from losing than you do from winning," he said at the time.

His introduction to many Americans came at the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club, where he is remembered for walking up to the green on the 17th hole of his singles match with Mark O'Meara to check a pin location. As he told Golf Digest in 2003, it wasn't gamesmanship as much as a lesson his father taught him. It was the most important shot of his life at that point.

"I wasn't going to rush it," he says. "I was mentally strong there. People were shouting at me to get on with it. I didn't care."

This occurred when Harrington had a reputation for slow play. It didn't help that his two role models were Bernard Langer and Jack Nicklaus, but it had nothing to do with his accounting degree, which was one of the theories. Harrington wasn't taking time calculating the distance and the angles of the shot as much as he was scrambling all the time.

"First of all, I hit it everywhere," he says. "All I had were 15-footers for par. I was chipping from 25 yards, hitting 40-yard bunker shots, grinding every day, every round. It would kill me if I didn't give 150 percent, so at times I over-tried."

The turning point of Harrington's career came one week after the 2002 Ryder Cup. After beating Mark Calcavecchia, 5 and 4, in singles at The Belfry, Harrington won the Dunhill Links in a playoff over Eduardo Romero. Three months later he beat Woods with a course-record 63 in the third round of the Target World Challenge. After that, his confidence soared. He finished second in back-to-back Players Championships (2003-04), went 4-1-0 in the 2004 Ryder Cup, kept winning in Europe and started winning in the United States.

His first win on the PGA Tour was gift-wrapped when Vijay Singh missed a 2-foot putt at the 2005 Honda Classic, but Harrington did apply pressure by shooting 63 in the final round to make up 7 shots. What wasn't lost on brother Tadhg was the up-and-down par Padraig made on the second playoff hole, bouncing a ball off a greenside bank and making the putt to win -- a par right out of his father's short-game book.

"If Tiger played that shot, people would have been raving about it," says Tadhg, a Dublin bookmaker.

Three months later at Westchester CC, Harrington had both arms in the air as his 66-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole of the Barclays Classic completed its journey to the bottom of the cup. The putt beat Jim Furyk and eased the pain of a playoff loss to Sergio Garcia at Westchester in 2004.

But the victories were bittersweet. Paddy's cancer returned to his esophagus two days after Padraig won in Florida. He died at 72, two weeks after Padraig won the Barclays. The funeral was held July 14, the day of the opening round of the 2005 British Open. All five sons were pallbearers. In attendance were policemen, club members, the country's sports minister, John O'Donoghue, former Dublin goalkeeper Paddy Cullen and two of Ireland's richest men, Dermot Desmond and J.P. McManus. According to Paddy's wishes, nothing related to his life in sports was mentioned at the funeral. A Garda cap was placed on his coffin. His brother, a Capuchin Monk, paid tribute by saying Paddy lived a simple, ordinary life with no airs or pretenses.

His father's death was draining for Padraig, who moved to a new home in Rathmichael three years ago, complete with target greens, a workout room and video equipment. But friends and family could see him start to recover in December.

"I don't think Padraig hit the ball out of his way for six months, but I called him on Christmas and he said, 'You're disturbing me,'" Tadhg recalls. "I said, 'What are you doing? Pitching balls on a green?' I heard him say, 'Correct.' It was time to go back to work."

Still shaking off rust, Harrington lost to Davis Love III in the quarterfinals of the WGC-Accenture Match Play in February. The rest of 2006 has been up and down. He was fifth at the U.S. Open with a triple bogey on the 18th hole Saturday and a bogey-bogey-bogey finish Sunday. The following week he was T-2 at the Booz Allen -- his fourth runner-up finish in the U.S. After missing the cut in the year's final two majors, he lost a playoff in the BMW International Open for his 23rd second-place finish in Europe.

In the Ryder Cup ads, Harrington tells everyone the great thing about Ireland is that win, lose or draw, there's always a great celebration at the 19th hole. He hopes to celebrate at The K Club, his father on his shoulder like a leprechaun, drinking the third Jack Daniels and Coke of his life.

"Certainly there is a lot of connection between me and Irish golf," Harrington says. "It's really nice to promote something you believe in, and Ireland is the easiest thing in the world to promote."

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine