Slate-gray clouds drew overhead like a wave of depression. Rain was mere minutes away. One look toward the colorless Pacific from the majestic bluffs on which rests Torrey Pines revealed the approaching shower marching over the surf and toward the shore.
Padraig Harrington, the best active player in the world, didn't notice. Still in shirtsleeves despite the damp chill, he was lost in his own battle. A long birdie putt on the 17th green of the North course stopped three feet above the hole, and he was facing a dangerous downhiller. His second stroke grazed the edge of the cup and, not unexpectedly, raced six feet past.
Harrington marked his ball, walked behind the hole and squatted, head down for a moment, before studying his line for a third time. Rising out of his crouch, he stalked the putt from every angle, as if making it would win a major championship (a feat he has accomplished three times), even though the six-footer was simply another shot during another PGA Tour stop, the Buick Invitational. Putt number 3 appeared to defy gravity as it weaved away from the hole. Without any show of emotion just the familiar display of clenched teeth that is a combination of wry smile and angry grimace Harrington tapped in and headed to the 18th tee as a few drops of rain turned into a driving squall. This was Irish weather all right, but not this Irishman's week.
So be it. Even though Harrington, who won the last two major championships of 2008 while Tiger Woods was sidelined, shot a one-under-par 287 to finish 24th at the Buick, he wasn't overly concerned. He expects, maybe even needs, to labor for success. "I've closed down the range the last four nights," Harrington said last Friday, "and I'll probably make it five."
A self-confessed obsessive practicer and analyzer, Harrington is the heir apparent to Vijay Singh, the longstanding Hardest Working Man in Golf. Harrington's work ethic is the key to his mid-30s success and the reason he'll likely handle the pressure of going for a third straight major, at Augusta, in less than eight weeks.
"Padraig believes in getting confidence the old-fashioned way, from hitting a thousand golf balls," says Harrington's most recent Ryder Cup captain, six-time major champion Nick Faldo. "We talked about intensity once, flying somewhere together on a private plane. I said, 'I used to work so hard that I'd be tired on the weekend.' And he admitted, 'Sometimes that's cost me tournaments on Sundays because I've worked so hard that I was worn out and played badly.' I said, 'Well, if you do, don't tell anybody. You've got to keep that a secret. The last thing you want is guys seeing you on the range and thinking, Great, he's tiring himself out.' After I said that, Padraig's eyes got bigger and bigger. All of what he said was in the paper the next day he'd just done an interview with a writer before he got on the plane." Faldo laughed, adding, "But it's worked out for him, hasn't it?"
On top of his game at 37, Harrington appears to be the right man at the right time to do what no one else has done: consistently challenge Tiger. The media's rush to anoint young players such as Anthony Kim and Camilo Villegas for that role seems premature, given their meager if promising resumes. Harrington has something they don't his three wins in the last six majors and the steely-eyed look of a player to be reckoned with after impressive final-nine 32s in last year's British Open and PGA Championship.
"I feel Padraig has that ability to make things happen," Faldo says. "[Jack] Nicklaus had that, Tiger has it, and I thought I had it. Most guys who can finish off a major have a fifth or sixth gear they can go to. Padraig's got it his swing gets faster, but he controls it. The iron shots are usually lasered right over the pin. His putting is magical. On the green, anything could be happening around him, yet he's totally engrossed in what he's trying to do."
Harrington was disappointed in his finish at Torrey Pines, especially considering that he had opened the season last month in Abu Dhabi by going 17 under and tying for fifth. How Harrington played at Torrey Pines, though, wasn't as significant as the fact that he played at all. Harrington usually likes to sharpen his game by playing events in stretches of three, but Torrey Pines marked the start of four tournaments in a row for him. He'll go home to Ireland for three weeks after the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship at the end of the month (skipping the no-cut, high-dollar World Golf Championship at Doral), then return for Bay Hill, Houston and the Masters. The Buick kicked off his countdown to Augusta and was the encore to his 2008 Player of the Year performance. "Everybody likes to improve their results year to year," Harrington says. "That's going to be difficult in my case."
He won't try to kid you that he isn't already thinking about the Masters. "I love Augusta National. It's the ultimate test," he says. "You have to hit all the shots, and it's intimidating down the stretch, very intimidating. In terms of results I've done O.K. there. It is a course I like, yes, and it is a course that suits me. But it also scares the hell out of me."
In nine Masters, Harrington's best finishes have been a pair of fifths (last year and 2002) and a seventh ('07), with six rounds (out of 32) in the 60s. "Padraig is somebody who Tiger is going to have to deal with in major championships," says Tour veteran Paul Goydos, who opened his '09 by coming in a solid 17th at Torrey. "He's one of the few guys in Tiger's ballpark when it comes to managing his game. I'm at the bottom of that list, but Padraig thinks his way around the course extremely well."
Harrington's short game, especially his putting, may rival Tiger's. The Masters has a reputation for favoring bombers, but the truth is that more great putters win it than big hitters. "Padraig does everything well, and he putts great," says Kevin Sutherland, who was paired with Harrington on Saturday and finished 35th. "I'd rate his game a 10 out of 10. Who else is a 10? Maybe only Tiger. Everyone else has something, a little hole in their game."
The focus at the Masters will inevitably be on Woods. His return to the Tour, at a date still to be determined, will be a major happening. Harrington expects and perhaps hopes that Woods will also draw most of the spotlight at Augusta, which is likely. Harrington has won three majors and two in a row, yet somehow remains under the radar in the U.S. At Torrey Pines he never had a gallery of more than 70 or 80 fans.
Maybe it's due to his humility. The first face you see on Harrington's official website, PadraigHarrington.com, isn't Paddy's. It's the face of James Braid, the last European to win consecutive British Opens until Harrington did it 102 years later. "I thought having a little history would be nice," Harrington says.
Making history is even better, as he can attest.