As he prepares to defend his British Open title, Padraig Harrington is driven by fear, ego and a will to win.

As he prepares to defend his British Open title, Padraig Harrington is driven by fear, ego and a will to win.

Padraig Harrington won the 2007 British Open in a playoff over Sergio Garcia.
Monte Isom

The most prominent memento on display in Padraig Harrington’s palatial home south of Dublin isn’t a golf trophy but a framed copy of the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 accord that ended the 30- year conflict in Northern Ireland. It bears the signatures of a rogues’ gallery of combatants-turned-peacemakers and stands as a testament to fortitude, a seemingly impossible achievement that nearly slipped away at the last minute.

Harrington can relate. Perched on the breakfast bar in his kitchen is another reminder of the value of resilience: the Claret Jug. When he arrived in Carnoustie a year ago, the reigning European No. 1 was known for his habit of cashing second-place checks. The week began with Nick Faldo hinting that the genial Irishman was too nice to win a major. It ended with Harrington, now 36, enduring two water balls on the 72nd hole before turning in a superb playoff performance against Sergio Garcia. We visited Harrington at home to find out how the son of a Dublin cop became the Champion Golfer of the Year.

So what does it feel like to be a former member of the Best Players Never to Win a Major club?
It feels good. It’s interesting, because while it’s awesome to have won a major, where do I go from here? My rhetoric has always been, “Yeah I’m going to win more than one.” For many people, there’s nothing afterward. The battle now is to keep improving, to drive forward. There are a lot of guys who’ve only won one major. Winning two would really set me apart.

How has life changed since Carnoustie? Other than the Aston Martin parked out front.
In the U.S., I’m much more in demand. In Ireland, when I go to the gas station, they have something to congratulate me on, rather than look at me and say, “Well, you nearly won last week!”

You don’t seem like the type to be bothered by fans coming up to you.
It’s always good for your ego when someone says, “Well done.” The day I came home from Carnoustie I went to a local restaurant — Can you believe that? Open champions have to eat! — and I put the trophy right in the middle of the table.

You took it with you to dinner?
Yes. This was at 4:30 in the afternoon. Every person who came in did a double-take. But nobody interfered. And if someone did, I’m well able to handle it. I can have a bit of banter with them. If you don’t enjoy it you wouldn’t enjoy being a professional golfer.

You say fans are good for the ego. Even at your level, is the ego that fragile?

Every sportsperson is all about their internal feelings about themselves. You don’t have to be arrogant or obnoxious. But if I don’t have an ego I won’t put my neck on the line. Unless you have that drive, you’ll be finishing 20th.

There was a time when you said you’d have been happy with that.

I thought that’s what was achievable for me. I thought being a journeyman pro was the level of my ability. My goal in golf has always been to be the best I can. If I didn’t become as good as I might have been it wouldn’t be for lack of effort. I love playing golf, and I was playing for free. The thought of winning a European Tour event when I turned pro was way above expectations. Just keeping my card was the goal. But I always intended to develop, whatever that might lead to. It’s obviously led to an Open championship.

What moment do you most remember from Carnoustie?

Watching the final [three-foot] putt drop. It was like no other putt I’ve ever hit. The last foot of that final putt was the longest foot ever. I raised my hands and I was happy, but it took me a second before believing I’d actually won. I mentally pinched myself that it was true. After that, I was on cloud nine. I gave my caddie a hug — the first time I’ve ever been in his physical space. We’ve often joked when I’ve won tournaments [that] it’s been a handshake. Once, we actually touched shoulders. So now I’ve given him the biggest hug ever, knowing that anyone other than his wife being in his physical space is not something he appreciates.

Last time we talked you said that you emerge every spring scared that your game has disappeared over the winter.
Big time. A huge amount of my golf has been driven by fear. It’s not a great emotion, and I’m trying to get away from it. I’m not as fearful now about my game disappearing. It’s taken me a long time to trust what I’ve got.

You seemed pretty confident all week at Carnoustie. You believed you were going to win. Why?
I wasn’t confident. I was content. Would I have put a bet on myself Wednesday evening? No. But I couldn’t ask any more of myself, whereas previously I would have been panicking and trying to find imaginary problems. Then on Saturday evening I did something I’d never done before. I turned to one of my friends and said to him, “I’m going to win tomorrow.”

You were confident of victory even though Sergio Garcia was at 9-under, six strokes ahead of you, entering Sunday?

He had a three-shot lead, and then I was three behind [Steve Stricker]. If I were leading I’d probably shoot 72 or 73, playing well. Few people can push on when they have a lead. We get defensive. I didn’t know Sergio would shoot 73, but I knew when I got past 6-under that I had a great chance. He’s probably got 7-under in his head all day, thinking 7-under is one ahead of second, and I’m thinking of getting past 6-under. This is what happens: Guys behind tend to move forward. If two guys are starting the day at 9-under, they battle it out between them. But having one guy ahead, more than likely it’s going to be a grind-out round of 1- or 2-over.

Were you spurred on when Nick Faldo said that week that guys like you were too nice to win majors?
I wasn’t spurred on, but I found it interesting. The reality is, I don’t think players now can pick up as evidently who their competitors are, bar Tiger. There are 20 guys in a given week who could win. My goal is to compete against myself. But this is what Tiger Woods has earned — I’m always aware what score he shoots.

Faldo will be your Ryder Cup captain. What’s your relationship like with him?
I get on pretty well with Faldo. Bear in mind, I didn’t know him in his competitive days. He’s entertaining. He’s a great commentator. If I didn’t know anything about what he was supposedly like when he was a player I would think, “Great guy.” I can’t judge him on what guys say he was like. He was obviously very insular, very self-focused in his day. I played a practice round with him in my first Masters [in 2000]. I was watching him work really hard. And I said, “You’ve won six majors — would you not just stand there and bask in that glory?” And he said, “If I could just win one more.” Now, he’s much mellower and doesn’t seem to be the person people said he was.

How did you summon that Faldo-like focus on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie? You’re one up on Sergio as you approach the tee, but your drive bounces off the bridge and into the water. Then you take a drop and rinse your next shot, too. You had to be churning inside.
Well, I was disappointed with the drive, but it didn’t really knock me back. I was very disappointed with the second shot, however, because I thought it had lost me the Open. But by the time I hit my next shot, everything was just about that shot. I didn’t spend any time brooding on what I should have done [with the previous swing].

Did you see Jean Van de Velde’s ghost out there?
Yes. When I was counting up my score [on the 72nd hole] it crossed my mind that I had a chip and putt to beat his 7. My caddie and I had discussed Van de Velde every day that week. In practice rounds we’d look at where he [had played shots on 18 in 1999]. It was, “He was here. What would you have done?”

As you walked to your tee shot that had found the water, you passed Sergio on the bridge. Did you exchange any words with him?

He said hello with a cheeky grin on his face. And to me it said, “What are you doing here?” Obviously he only said “Hello,” but I gave it the stern face. I didn’t have anything to say. There wasn’t something to smile about.

So there was a little needle attached to his grin?

I don’t know if there was, but you could read that into it. I can’t tell. But when you’re in the wrong fairway, and you’ve hit an embarrassing shot, and someone smiles and says “Hello,” you’re like, “Yeah, I feel bad enough without having to meet the guy who’s going to beat me walking across the bridge.”

Didn’t some of your friends leave the course after you messed up and made a 6 on the 18th hole?
Two close friends, yeah. They haven’t told me they left, but I know they did. I know one guy at home broke his plasma TV throwing something at it. Another friend turned off the TV and didn’t know for two-and-a-half hours that I’d won in a playoff. So many people in Ireland have lived my wins and losses — mainly the losses — over the years. I’m proud of the fact that I made more men cry that Sunday than anything else I’ve ever done.

After he lost, Sergio said, ‘I’m playing against a lot of guys out there, more than the field.’ What did you think of those churlish comments?
Obviously he was being interviewed too early in terms of his emotions. Whatever he felt in that situation, the professional thing to do is keep your mouth shut and say, “Well done.” Whatever he was really thinking, that’s the professional way. We probably criticized him for telling what he believed was the truth, for being honest. At the end of the tournament I shook his hand and commiserated, and I’ve never seen the disappointment as evident on someone’s face as it was on his. But as has been proved in those kinds of situations, you really have to try to be incredibly diplomatic. I think he was just too honest about his feelings.

Did you see any of those other mysterious forces he claimed to be battling when you were on the course?

I’ve only seen the playoff holes. I don’t usually read too much about what’s said after an event.

You’re being diplomatic.

I am being diplomatic.

You said you might not have been competitive again if you’d lost.

Normally when you lose a tournament, it’s disappointing until you get on the course again. With a major, it’s different. I don’t know how many opportunities I’m going to have to win majors. If I had lost the Open I definitely would have walked away wondering, Would I ever get another chance? What if I get another chance and do the same thing? There would have been so many doubts the next time. If my tee shot had bounced across the bridge, that would have been the worst thing that could have happened to me, because I’d be known as a lucky guy for winning the Open. It going into the water and then having to win in a playoff, I’ve proved myself, and I can hold my head up. I’ve always been happy to put my neck out there. It’s been chopped off many a time. But [losing] would have been so painful that I would have questioned whether I would have wanted to be back out there again.

You finished 18 feeling miserable, but you broke into a smile when your son Patrick ran onto the green.

I look up, and it’s the first time I’ve seen the scoreboard. I’ve lost the Open. I’m embarrassed. I’ve messed up. I’m really starting to get into a serious downward spiral. I turn around and see my son running onto the green like I’m the champion. I open up my arms, and I became absolutely oblivious to losing the Open. I’m happy, waving to the crowd, like everything went away. From then until the playoff I did not have one moment of “I’ve just lost the Open championship.”

You must have felt you’d dodged a bullet when Sergio’s putt lipped out on 18.
When his putt lipped out, both my caddie and I stood up and headed for the door. It was just “Let’s go and do it.” I watched the playoff the following week, and I was actually nervous watching it. Every time Sergio’s putt misses, I take a deep breath. Because I never let myself get down, I came out strong in the playoff, whereas Sergio was obviously disappointed after his bogey at the last.

Is it true that Sergio was crowding you on the first tee in the playoff, and you asked him to move?

I think that was on 18.

What happened?

Where did you hear this?

The grapevine.

Ah, the grapevine… Well, on 18 I re-teed my ball, so I moved over to where the players were standing. [Pauses] I don’t know if I should be going into this. I moved it closer to Sergio. So I just said, “Can I have a bit of room, please?” It was a general statement because I didn’t want to be particular to anyone. I just got the response of “Take your time.” It didn’t bother me. I’m just very finicky about that. I’ve had to ask far bigger stars to move. I asked Seve. I’ve asked Tiger. In fairness he had nowhere else to stand. I moved toward him. He didn’t move toward me.

Finish this sentence: ‘If there’s one thing I know for sure it’s…’
In life? [Long pause].
Well, I think your outlook tends to determine the outcome. In golf there’s a fine line between the twin imposters of success and failure. Look at the Open. If Sergio’s putt had gone in. we’d be having a very different conversation, and that [wasn’t] in my control. There’s only a short distance between a pat on the back and a kick up the backside. When I was out celebrating the Open and enjoying my success, I was very aware of how close it was to the ultimate failure. I won plenty of tournaments and was in my hotel room at 10 p.m. waiting for the next week. That doesn’t happen now. If I win, I enjoy it. I know it doesn’t happen often. I’ve had some great nights in the last year.