Padraig Harrington is the first Irishman to win the PGA Championship, and he’s the first Irishman to win back-to-back majors. He’s also the first Irishman to win three majors inside of 13 months. He’s the first Irishman to ascend to No. 3 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and he’s the first Irishman to complain of dehydration and then reach for a sports drink instead of a pint of Guinness. After yesterday’s triumph at Oakland Hills, Harrington is — to sports fans, at least — the First Irishman.
I know, everyone has been calling him a “European.” The TV guys keep pointing out that Padraig is the first European to win the PGA since the Scottish emigre Tommy Armour prevailed at Fresh Meadow in 1930, and there is endless analysis of how Harrington’s run of brilliance might boost Europe’s chances in next month’s Ryder Cup. But all this chatter comes from dopes like me who pronounce his name “POD-reg.” In Ireland, of course, he is “POR-ig” — with a trilled ‘r.’
“His nickname is Paddy,” writes John Hopkins in The Times, “and he looks every bit the friendly sort of Irishman you hope to bump into at a bar in Dublin. He plays a bit of golf but you wouldn’t know to what level because he doesn’t talk about it much. All you know is that he sticks his tongue out of the corner of his mouth when he plays.”
Well, we’ll soon know a lot more. Ireland is full of poets, playwrights and balladeers, and half of them are probably bent over their desks at this very moment, extolling “the hills of Oakland” and trying to find a rhyme for “Sergio.”
Paddymania? That might be overstating it, but I was in Ireland on sabbatical last summer when Harrington dusted his Spanish rival at Carnoustie to win his first Open. Paddy got an open-top-bus parade. He visited then-Prime Minister Bertie Ahern. His smiling mug graced the front page of every publication in the country, with the possible exception of Irish Roundabouts Monthly. Two weeks ago, when I returned to County Mayo for a week of R&R, the Emerald Islanders were celebrating Harrington’s second Open Championship (Royal Birkdale), while the typing trade declared him Ireland’s “greatest sportsman” of all time.
This latest victory certainly raises Harrington to the pinnacle of Irish sports achievement — which, one must admit, is not much higher than the dwarf mountains that overlook his home course in County Dublin. Ireland has claimed only one Olympic gold medal in track and field in the last half-century (Ronnie Delany’s win in the 1500 meters at Melbourne), one Tour de France victory (Stephen Roche, 1987), and four other Olympic golds (one for boxer Michael Carruth, 1992; three for swimmer Michelle Smith, 1996). There are zip codes in Delaware that have produced more international champions.
Golfers? Ireland has had a few. Fred Daly won the 1947 British Open at Hoylake, and Christy O’Connor Jr. — nephew to the Christy O’Connor who is known in Ireland simply as “Himself” — struck the unforgettable 2-iron shot at the Belfry that retained the 1989 Ryder Cup for Europe. The Irish will never forget Joe Carr, either, and more recently they have been able to cheer for the likes of Eamonn Darcy, Des Smyth, Ronan Rafferty, Darren Clarke, Paul McGinley, and Philip Walton. And David Feherty, too, although Feherty’s gifts as a writer and paid gabber have made people forget that he beat Payne Stewart in singles at the 1991 Ryder Cup.
But Harrington’s accomplishment is of a different order of magnitude. And it’s ironic, because the two supposedly Tigerless majors of 2008 wound up being won by a Celtic Tiger — the pro from Stackstown Golf Club in Rathfarnham, Dublin.
Smile, Ireland. You’ve every right to be proud.