In the past 14 months Padraig Harrington has beaten Sergio Garcia twice when it mattered most.
The first time, when the paint-by-numbers Irishman defeated the Spanish artista in a playoff at the 2007 British Open, Garcia could barely be bothered to praise the winner. The second time, last month at the PGA Championship, Harrington buried Garcia on the final two holes and the runner-up offered the winner the coolest of congratulatory handshakes. Garcia has long been bratty in defeat, but there was more going on than that. He had lost to a man with less talent, and it hurt. When Rocco Mediate lost to Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines, Rocco looked like a king. But Harrington, that plodder, had turned Garcia into a major loser twice. How do you say bite me in Spanish?
Garcia, John Daly, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Pat Perez, Ian Poulter, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods ... the list of golfers with more game than Harrington, guys with higher golfing GPAs, is long. The Harrington report card relies on neatness and effort. By consensus:
"What he's shown," says Poulter, an Englishman who will be on the European Ryder Cup team next week with Garcia, Harrington and nine others, "is that work pays." Winning three of the last six majors will earn you a lot of grudging respect.
And a lot of plain respect, too. When Tiger comes back next year, whom do you think he'll be most worried about beating down the stretch for the best-in-golf menswear and hardware? Sergio? You've seen how emotional he gets on holes 63 to 72 and beyond. Phil? You know that move when he takes off his visor and runs his hand through his hair? It's because he has too much going on in his head. Veej? Super FedEx putting, for sure, but nobody's won a major with a long putter. Ernie? Maybe the most gifted of them all, but Easy couldn't spell grinder if you spotted him rinder. Nope. Tiger, notoriously poor sleeper that he is, might be reliving two professional nightmares when he's sitting up nights: the 2006 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan and his own Target World Challenge in '02. In those two events the Dublin Kid who wears his Wilson cap so high on his forehead it looks like a beanie defeated Tiger while paired with him. Maybe you don't remember. Tiger does.
Harrington's ball flight used to make it look as if he was bowling, but he has learned how to play high-ball golf specifically for Augusta National, where he tied for fifth in April. He has already won two British Opens, last year and this year. He won his PGA at Oakland Hills, a U.S. Open course. Yes, next year should be juicy.
And in the meantime, here comes the Ryder Cup, the event Harrington regards as his favorite in all of golf. Why? Because he does not call himself an athlete or a golfer, and certainly not a celebrity or a star, but a sportsman, just like his father before him.
The senior Paddy Harrington was a well-known Gaelic football player in Cork (barely a paying gig, but he died in '05 at 72, a legend) who fed his family as a Dublin police officer and who built a golf course with his own hands and those of his Garda golf buddies. Tiger was groomed for greatness by father Earl from the time he was teething, and he was ready for prime time by age 15; Padraig, who is 37 with a wife and three children and a house in Dublin and another under construction in a North Carolina golf community, played every sport as a kid, but most especially golf on his father's course. In his early 20s, despite his success in Walker Cup golf, he was still studying to become an accountant. He will finish his career in the Hall of Fame. Your classic overachiever.
The European sportsman in general and the Irish sportsman in particular loves the Olympics and the Tour de France and World Cup soccer because those events require individual athletes to bond. Last time around, when the Ryder Cup was in Dublin and Harrington was a big name but not yet a major winner, the matches overwhelmed him, the weight of a nation and all that. There were double doors at the Dublin airport that had half of Harrington's cherubic face on one side and half on the other. His play in 2006 at the K Club was horrid (he went 0-4-1), but if you only watched him cheering on the lads you'd have never known. He has no sulk gene.
Harrington said recently that he regards the 1999 Ryder Cup, the one at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., as "the single greatest golf event in which I have participated." Even though his team lost. Even though he's won majors. (Can you imagine Woods saying anything like that?) As for the famously over-the-top "U-S-A" fans at Brookline, Harrington could relate to their passion. Caring too much is a sin that Padraig the youngest of five boys, all with traditional Gaelic names (Tadgh, Columb, Fintan, Fergal; their mother is Breda) can understand.
In September 1999, Harrington was largely unknown to American fans until Ryder Cup Sunday. For much of that afternoon it looked as if the eighth singles match pitting Harrington against the PGA Tour's most celebrated Irish-American, Mark O'Meara would decide the Cup. The Southies came out in droves. Well, maybe not exactly that, but Irish Boston was having a good time with it. On the 14th O'Meara made a bogey. Harrington had a downhill, tilting four-footer for par to go 1 up. There was almost no grass between Harrington's ball and the hole. He couldn't read the line, and neither could his veteran caddie, Dave McNeely of Belfast. The golfer committed to a line (that's huge, fellow duffers, that right there), and it turned out to be the wrong one and his ball went hissing past the hole. Now the overserved spectators were hooting and hollering and Harrington was staring down a yard of uphill hell for the halve. Draino. It was Paddy's bar mitzvah (occasion marking a boy's passage into manhood, etc.).
Three holes later Harrington walked to the green before playing a pitch shot from 100 yards out. Just marched on up, with Mr. Mark O'Meara, winner of the 1998 Masters and British Open, waiting. With the whole golf world watching. It looked as if Harrington was pacing the thing off and slow-playing Tiger's best friend. How do you say balls of steel in Gaelic?
What Padraig was actually doing was inspecting (but not testing) the green, gauging just how shiny, and therefore unreceptive, it would be. It was not a move he would ever make in an ordinary tournament. But this was the Ryder Cup. Captain Mark James and 11 teammates and millions of others were counting on him. When his match with O'Meara ended on 18 Harrington won 1 up he ran out to the 17th green just in time to see pyromaniac Justin Leonard set off several tons of U.S. fireworks. The Euros were losers. Best thing Harrington's ever played in. What a sportsman.
So he's not another Tiger, even though his shutdown back nines on British Open Sunday in July and again on PGA Sunday in August bring Woods to mind. He's far more accessible than Woods to reporters, to playing partners, to caddies (a brother-in-law, Ronan Flood of Dublin, is now on his bag) and to paying fans, who tend to chat him up as if he's a representative of the Irish Tourist Board. (The overachiever is never held in awe, is he? Only true genius takes our breath away.) Harrington is smart and analytical, has opinions on everything and is willing to share them. When the LPGA first talked about an English-language requirement for its foreign members, Harrington wondered about the fairness for players with learning disabilities.
He's often insightful. Also wry and amusing. He was once playing in the pro-am before the Houston Open at the Redstone Golf Club with Rees Jones, the course architect. Jones, sizing up a birdie putt, asked Harrington to help him with the read. Harrington said, "You designed the green. You read it."
A few years ago at the Masters, the reigning British Amateur champion, Stuart Wilson of Scotland, wanted to get an autograph from Harrington. He said, "Would you sign this, Porig? Yer me mum's favorite golfer."
Harrington signed and brogued back, "Wouldn't you be yer mum's favorite golfer?"
Harrington rarely drinks, but he celebrated the European win in the 2002 Ryder Cup at the Belfry with too many rounds of an American spirit, Jack Daniel's. The next day, as the team bus went to the airport, Harrington's eyes were hooded and his mouth dry, and the boys Garcia and Lee Westwood and Darren Clarke and the others were tormenting him. There was a chorus of, "More Jack, Paddy?" To which Harrington groaned, "That's Mr. Daniel's to you."
Most weeks, maybe, there's no love lost between Garcia and Harrington. But when the Euros arrive in Louisville next week, those two will be the European headliners, and if you think they'll be anything but spirited, collegial teammates, guess again. The Ryder Cup brings out the sportsman in the Spaniard, too. It's in the European DNA.
"The Monday after the Ryder Cup," Harrington said in a FedEx press tent last month, "you might go to another tournament and when you meet a teammate, there'll be hugs on the practice tee and 'How's it going?' The following week, you meet your teammate and it's high-fives on the practice tee. The following week, it's shaking hands on the practice tee. The following week, it's a wave. And the following week, it's the head down and keep going."
A day later, on a perfect American summer afternoon, Harrington was on a country-club driving range. Sergio was doing his thing, and Poulter was doing his. Various U.S. Ryder Cup players and candidates were working on this and that. Harrington handed an ice cream bar to his brother-in-law the caddie and unboxed another for himself. (In his mid-20s he was 210 pounds, but now he's a lean 190 and a little over six feet.) He chipped the chocolate skin off a Haagen-Dazs bar with his front teeth, his head up, the midday sun on his Irish face, feet planted, narrow eyes darting, taking in everything, all the practice balls he could want awaiting him. A happy man. Two for four in majors this year, with the biggest show coming.