Padraig Harrington: Knocking at the Door

Padraig Harrington: Knocking at the Door

Despite 14 worldwide wins and four years as a mainstay of the top 10 in the world rankings, Padraig Harrington is known less for his victories than his near misses- he has more than two dozen second-place finishes in his 10-year career. Fans love his goofy grin and “Lucky Charms” accent, but beneath the charm is a steely competitor constantly looking for an edge. (One experiment with his shoes helped him gain 20 yards off the tee.) With two wins on the PGA Tour in 2005, the 34-year-old Dubliner says he’s ready for a major close-up.

This has been your first full season on the PGA Tour. Why did you decide to play in the U.S. and what’s been the main difference you’ve found? I wanted to play more events before The Masters and U.S. Open. Traditionally I don’t start playing until the end of February. Last year I had only played 10 events by the British Open. There should be a difference at this stage–I set my schedule to play four more events–but because of family circumstances I haven’t played as full a schedule as I thought I would.

Immediately after you beat Vijay Singh in a playoff at the Honda Classic in March, you learned that your father was battling cancer. How is he? He’s comfortable, that’s about all I can say. He’s gone past treatment at this stage. [Editor’s Note: Padraig’s father, Patrick, died as this issue went to press.]

He introduced you to the game, right? He did. He was a very good footballer in his day. When he retired from that, he was looking for another sport. He was a policeman and discovered that it was very difficult for a policeman to get into golf clubs; 30 years ago it was a more exclusive game than it is today. So he and his friends built their own course 10 minutes from my home. That became my playground from 4 years of age.

Does that experience make you want to design your own course? I’m going to do a course in Dubai. I must have looked at over 30 projects around Europe, Asia and the U.S., but Dubai is ideal because it’s a blank canvas.

Having a son under 2 years old at home, are there days when you just don’t want to hop a plane at Dublin airport? It really has changed me. I used to travel to the States on the Saturday before a tournament. Now I go Monday.

Do you have a private jet yet? No, no I don’t.

A lot of attention is focused on the Big Five. Where do you see yourself in the mix? I’m in a bunch of guys outside that Big Five. It’s more a leap of faith than anything else to get there. Vijay got to number one, but two years previously he was behind me in the rankings. It’s a mental leap of faith. As an amateur I looked at these guys as the top pros and put them on a pedestal. It takes a while to get your head around that you have to compete against them.

You competed with them at the Honda Classic. You flirted with a 59 in the final round and then made two spectacular par saves to beat Vijay. Where does it rank in the career moments? It was very special that I played great in last round and hit some great shots at the end. I’ve won enough around the world to be happy with my wins, sort of, but it was the way I won that I was happy about.

At any point in the playoff did you think about how, if you were to lose, there would be more “bridesmaid” stories? Not that day. I got used to that when I won the TPC of Europe in Germany three years ago. I holed a 12-footer to get into a playoff, which I won on the first hole. Afterwards I heard that the commentators said I’d finished second 24 times, “Is he ever going to win?” That sort of thing. But because the putt went in they said, “Harrington has banished the demons–he’s never going to finish second again.” I could have hit the same good putt and it might not have gone in, and they would have been writing the disaster stories. It brought home to me the twin impostors of success and failure. If you put your head on the line often enough, it’s going to get chopped off, and I want to get into contention as much as I can. I’ve finished second 26 times and I’ve won 14 times. It’s not a bad conversion rate. That’s a lot of good tournaments.

Now that you’ve banished the bridesmaid demons by winning the Barclay’s Classic in Westchester, where you lost a playoff last year, do you remember the names of the bridesmaids in your own wedding party? [Pauses] I do remember them. Do you want me to name them?

No, just checking. Has there been a major that got away from you? I’ve had some good results in majors but the only one where I was in the mix was [the British Open at] Muirfield in 2002. I missed the playoff by a shot. I was three behind playing the last, was pushing to make birdie and made bogey. I never saw 6-under getting into a playoff. I finished 5-under. I wasn’t a bit disappointed when I finished, but I was devastated about an hour later.

How many countries did you pay taxes in last year? Good question. I have no idea.

You trained as an acountant but don’t know that? One thing I learned from my training is to pay an expert.

Is it true that your shoes are giving you extra distance off the tee? Yes. Unfortunately I was brought up with the attitude of hitting it straight, so I’ve been searching for length for the last couple of years. I wear Hi-Tec shoes and had a discussion with them about developing shoes for golf. You don’t send a marathon runner out in sprinter’s shoes, but golfers just go out in a pair of walking shoes with spikes in them. We got a biomechanist involved. The shoes allow your feet to work in the right direction easily and resist your feet working in the wrong direction. You want that left foot to be a brace at impact. I did an experiment. I cut the ribs off the outside of my shoes and made them more like slippers. I couldn’t play–my foot rolled over so much. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe a quarter inch of rubber on the side of the shoe made that much difference.

How much farther are you hitting it? The USGA measures me every year at the U.S. Open. Between 2003 and 2004, the only difference in my equipment was the shoes and I was 20 yards longer.

And it started with cutting the rubber off your shoes. Are you a naturally curious guy? I like to get into the workings of things. I’m not the sort of person who pulls toys apart to examine them, but when I look at somebody winning a tournament I have a big interest in what’s going on in his head.

Have you even started thinking about the Ryder Cup in Ireland next year? What worries me from a selfish point of view is that we’ve won the last two, so the U.S. will want to win this one badly. They’ll come out strong, which I don’t want happening in Ireland. I’m not saying I wish we’d lost the last two, but we’d be in a better position, if you know what I mean. They’re not going to need any motivational speakers Thursday night, are they?

Would you rather see it played on a classic Irish links than at the K Club, which is a very American-style course? If it were played on a links course it would give us a better chance and it would be more traditional, but the K Club makes a better venue, without a doubt. The Ryder Cup is very important to the European Tour, much more so than in the U.S. The Tour has commercial interests and it uses the Cup as a big stick to wield when it comes to promoting the Tour. [K Club owner] Michael Smurfit supported the Tour and deserves the Ryder Cup.

Given the recent accusations of cheating against Colin Montgomerie, do you think that’s going to hurt his…You know what…

…chances at being Ryder Cup captain someday? That’s a different question.

What did you think I was going to ask? If you were going to ask me about it, I haven’t seen the tape. I’m going to sit right on the fence.

Even so, it’s a hard stigma for Monty to shake, even if he’s innocent. Just ask Vijay. You’re right about that. Either way the dirt has been thrown. I don’t think it will have any effect on his Ryder Cup aspirations.

Other than your family, who would be the first person you’d invite to your birthday party? [Laughs] Who’d be the first person? [Thinking]

Your World Cup teammate and longtime buddy Paul McGinley will be upset if he doesn’t get the call here. Ah no, forget that. I’m thinking somebody I don’t know. I hate to say this, but I always end up picking despots because I like to figure out what they are thinking. Are they mad or not? I don’t know. Eminem–I want to see what’s going on in his brain.

Does Eminem count as a despot? I think so, in the way of the world. People either love him or hate him, but he’s interesting.

Who’s the last person who’d get the invite? Maybe Jose Maria Olazabal? [Harrington and Olazabal had a well-publicized falling out over a rules incident in 2003] No. That will never be water under the bridge, but we’re civil. Unfortunately we were reasonably friendly before that and we’re civil now. Who’d be the last? I suppose I’d have a few on my list but I ain’t going to say them.

What do you spend your money on? The only extravagance has been my house. That was where all the cash went for a couple of years. I do have my eye set on something–I’m saving for one thing.

The plane? Could be, all right. That would make my life simpler. It would probably make me a better golfer. It’s not a matter of explaining it to my accountant. I can justify it that it’s good for the family, good for golf. It’s just…[laughs] financially.

Here’s a scenario: you’re playing Texas Hold ‘Em against your cousin Dan Harrington, who won the World Series of Poker in 1995. You’ve got just a pair of aces and Dan pushes all his chips into the pot. Do you call him? Oh, yeah. If I’ve got the right cards I’ll play them. I would always try to do the right thing and risk losing everything. I wouldn’t go all in if I had two eights. If I didn’t have the right hand and I thought he was bluffing, that would be a problem.

Another of your cousins is Detroit Lions quarterback Joey Harrington. Can he hit a wedge farther than you can throw a football? He can certainly hit it farther. About three years ago I got an American football out to practice. I must have done 20 throws with my right arm so I decided to throw it with my left arm. It took me six months to sort out my left shoulder. Joey came over to Ireland and there was an opportunity for us to watch each other hit wedges or throw footballs. It never happened–we stuck to neutral sports. He never reached for a wedge and I never reached for a football.