Wednesday, December 17, 2008

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — Perhaps it is only fitting that Padraig Harrington first gained notoriety in the United States when he walked more than 150 yards to the 17th green at The Country Club to check the hole location at the Ryder Cup.

Few players pay such attention to detail.

He is missing this week from the Chevron World Challenge for the first time in seven years, but he was easy to find all those years he showed up at Sherwood for what most everyone else treated as a prestigious money grab. Even in the silly season, Harrington would be on the practice range until it was too dark and too cold to continue.

That he was voted PGA Tour player of the year Tuesday was no accident.

Vijay Singh for years was credited as the hardest-working man in golf because he spends so many hours on the practice range. Others would argue that Tiger Woods works the hardest because he is the most efficient with his time. Harrington is a little of both.

And to what does he attribute such a work ethic?

"I'm an optimist," he said. "Every day I get out there, I think I'm getting better."

In some respects, he was at his best this year. The Irishman won only two tournaments this year, but they put him in the record books. He became the first European in more than a century to win back-to-back at the British Open. A month later, he became the first European ever to win successive majors in the same season by capturing the PGA Championship.

Who would have imagined that?

As everyone waited to see if Colin Montgomerie would win a major to validate his eight Order of Merits, or if Sergio Garcia would live up to his supreme skills by winning a major, Harrington won three of the last six majors to become the face of European golf.

"I probably never was necessarily destined as the one to be picked out to go on to such great heights," Harrington said. "At all stages, I'm somebody who has worked hard. And probably my greatest trait is my ability to learn, apply myself to tasks, find out what needs to be done and to move on."

Harrington won 11 times on the European Tour and twice on the PGA Tour before he won his first major. He was known almost as much for the all those runner-up finishes he had — 14 in a four-year span at the turn of the decade.

He figures he could have won more, but at what cost?

"I'm quite a risk-taker when it comes to changing things," Harrington said. "I worry sometimes that, certainly in my initial years on the tour, I sacrificed short-term performances. I might have won more events but for the fact that I was always changing things."

He can recall more than one occasion when he was leading or in contention going into the final round, and he spent his time on the practice range that morning changing his swing to get ready for a bigger tournament down the road.

"Nowadays, it would be madness to do something like that," he said.

His great season was topped off by a week that made all the work — and all the changes — worthwhile.

In a span of eight days, Harrington was voted player of the year by the European tour; by the British-based Association of Golf Writers; by the Golf Writers Association of America (with 75 percent of the vote); and by his colleagues on the PGA Tour.

The most recent was the most meaningful because it was strictly a vote of the players.

"It is an individual game when we're out there competing, but you do want and crave the respect of your fellow pros," he said. "And the fact that they have picked me as their player of the year, I find it hard to describe. I've probably never received as high an accolade in my life. It compares equally to winning a major championship."

The PGA Tour does not release voting totals, and all Harrington revealed was that he abstained.

"I wouldn't believe in voting for myself," he said. "But I did dearly want to win it, so I wasn't going to vote for somebody else."

With one major in the bag, Harrington found himself trying to live up to his status the first part of 2008 and getting in his way. Only after a wrist injury in the days leading up to the British Open did he take pressure off himself and let the golf come naturally.

Two majors put him in a special class, but he kept pushing, searching for a new level to reach. He found it a month later at Oakland Hills with a putting performance over the final three holes that ranks among the best.

Now comes the most scrutiny he has ever faced.

If he were to win at Augusta National in April, Harrington would join Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan as the only players to win three consecutive majors since the Masters began in 1934. Additional pressure comes from having to beat a major field that includes Woods, who was on the couch when Harrington won the last two majors.

Whatever happens, it will not be from a lack of effort.

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