Padraigh Harrington's slow, steady rise to superstardom has been built on precise, calculating golf ("I tend to be more conservative, always with one eye on a good place to miss," Harrington says), but as he arrives at this Masters on the precipice of so much history, he knows his best chance at a green jacket is to abandon who he is as a golfer. "I need to be a bit more gung ho," Harrington says. "The most important thing at Augusta, the Number 1 priority, is making the right decisions. Even more important than your putting or your ball striking is taking on the right shots at the right time. I need to be committed to taking risks on the course."
In Harrington's first seven Masters he finished better than 13th only once (fifth in 2002). In the last two, he tied for seventh and then last year shared fifth, part of an ascension that has seen him win two British Opens and a PGA Championship in the last 21 months. At this Masters he will try to join Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods as the only men to triumph at three consecutive major championships, and Harrington's tolerance for aggression will be tested on the very first hole. He has bogeyed number 1 in five of his last 12 rounds at Augusta National. "I find the green to be the toughest on the course, with some very severe pin positions," he says. "I've tried to play to certain spots, but there is no good place to miss. You either hit it close or you may be off the green. So you might as well fire at the flag, you know?"
This do-or-die philosophy is even more pronounced on the hole that has defined so many Masters, the sharply doglegged par-5 13th, with the left side of its fairway and green protected by Rae's Creek. From 2002 to '06 Harrington played the reachable hole cautiously and was a cumulative even par in 18 rounds. "I always laid up off the tee with three-wood or four-wood," he says. "It made the drive less risky. That left me with a five-wood in, so I was usually quite happy [if I] put it in the middle of the green."
Over the last two years Harrington has unsheathed his driver, flying the trees on the inside corner of the dogleg and hugging the left side, flirting dangerously with the creek. He has often been rewarded for the gambit: With only a four- or a five-iron to the green, he made two birdies and an eagle in 2007 and last year had two birdies (but also a bogey). "The difference is that when I get it wrong, it's going to go badly, and I'll take 7 or close to it," Harrington says. "I'm working on the principle that some year it's going to go horribly wrong, but if I want to win the tournament, I have to take the chance."
Harrington, 37, is the rare golfer who can find validation in failure. The 2006 U.S. Open is remembered for the 72nd-hole self-immolation of Phil Mickelson and, to a lesser degree, Colin Montgomerie, but Harrington had his own blowup at Winged Foot, bogeying the final three holes to finish two back of Geoff Ogilvy. Yet Harrington has often said that the peace he felt playing that final round left him convinced he was ready to win a major, and 15 months later he did, at Carnoustie. Similarly, his commitment to attacking Augusta National was fortified in 2007 with a shot that he says ultimately left him "gutted."
Harrington had begun the final round two strokes off the lead but struggled in the brutally cold and windy conditions, playing the first 11 holes in three over. A birdie at 12 and an eagle at 13 got him back in the game. Three off the lead playing the par-5 15th hole, he smoked a drive and had 232 yards to the flag, a comfortable distance for his hybrid. "It was pure," he says of the strike. "It was dead at the flag. In the air I was thinking I was going to make eagle and be one back. Then a gust of wind knocked the ball down. It landed on the green but pitched back into the water. I couldn't believe it. I never thought it was short. One more yard and it winds up 20 feet from the flag. Three more yards and it's stone dead.
"People afterward second-guessed the play, saying, Oh, God, you lost the Masters there. But I wasn't going to win by laying up. Of course I was gutted with the result, but not the decision. I would have been more gutted never to have had the chance to win. I will sacrifice everything simply for the chance to win."
FOR HARRINGTON, who makes his home in Dublin, the road to Augusta leads through the scruffy hamlet of Largs on Scotland's rugged Ayrshire coast, where he spends every wet, miserable winter fine-tuning his game under the watchful eye of Bob Torrance, the 77-year-old oracle whose hundreds of pupils include his son Sam, the victorious 2002 Ryder Cup captain. Harrington first sought out the elder Torrance following the 1998 U.S. Open, during which he felt overmatched trying to control his approaches into the brick-hard greens at the Olympic Club. Harrington has grown so close to his teacher that he has his own brass bed in a spare room in Torrance's cottage, and his favorite meal, a Dover sole that is straight off the trawler, is cooked by Bob's bride, June. Torrance is old school in the extreme: no video cameras, no mirrors, and even the champion golfer of the world shags his own balls at the low-tech driving range where Torrance plies his trade.