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Padraig Harrington worthy to be called greatest Irish athlete ever

Padraig Harrington
Padraig Harrington

LONG before Google, there was the relentlessly whirring, never-sleeps search engine called Padraig Harrington.

Harrington wears his insatiable thirst for knowledge as proudly as he would an Augusta National Green Jacket presented to him in the Butler Cabin on Masters Sunday.

How to describe this most compelling, engaging, slightly madcap and brilliant Dubliner in, say, 140 characters?

A phenomenon of application, a triumph of open-mindedness, Ireland’s greatest ever sportsman?

Analytical, eccentric, a giant of self-analysis, the forever meddling inhabitant of some nutty professor’s cave?

A glorious antidote to cynicism, endlessly fascinating, an athlete worthy of cheering to the very last breath?

Incapable of ducking a question, inhabitant of left-field, a man in whose company five hours passes in five minutes?

Gentleman, iron-willed competitor, custodian of an ethereal firestorm of optimism?

He himself might prefer, a champion who, a month shy of his 46th birthday, believes he can make it all work again.

For your correspondent, an unashamed Harrington ultra, a pithier still portrait will suffice: The very best of us.

The Dubliner returns to Birkdale this week, the golfing oasis which, nine years ago at the Open Championship, he made a cornerstone of his rank as a major-winning golfer.

He does so as an athlete closer to 50 than 40, more than 3,200 days on from claiming his most recent major title.

HARRINGTON FACT FILE

  • The Dubliner looked to have the world at his feet nine years ago as he triumphed at the  2008 USPGA having just defended his Open Championship title. But he made the decision to change his swing – he wanted to add extra length – and paid for the change.
  • Since his victory at Oakland Hills to record his third Major triumph pickings have been slim for the 45-year-old. In 2009 he had his first winless year for a decade as he battled through that swing change – one he was advised by everyone close to him not to do.
  • Harrington won the 2014 Indonesian Open, the 2015 Honda Classic and last year’s Portugal Masters but in 2014, having reached a career-high No 3 in the world order in July 2008 and having spent over 300 weeks in the top ten, he had plunged to 265th. He went into this week’s Scottish Open lying 169th.

 

Next to the Love Island generation – Spieth, Fleetwood, Fowler, Johnson, the desperately grasping-for-form McIlroy – some might be inclined to view Harrington as time-expired, as anachronistic as the Mashie wielded all those years ago by Old Tom Morris.

A curator of endless ambition, Harrington is not remotely inclined to see himself as a museum piece.

There he was on Thursday in the Scottish gloaming, harvesting seven birdies on the Dundonald Links, an old champion finding again the vein of inspiration. By lunchtime Friday he was four shots clear of the field.

He will tee it up at Birkdale this week, convinced his presence offers so much more than a nostalgic sideshow.

He could point to the fact that Jack Nicklaus was 46 when he achieved the 18th major notch on his gunbelt.

Harrington might ask you to rewind to just last October and his most recent European Tour victory in Portugal.

Or he could recall that it was Greg Norman, then 53, who chased him home on that unforgettable afternoon in 2008, when Harrington became the first European in more than a century to successfully defend the Open Championship (below).

If unstinting practice really did make perfect, Harrington would long ago have overtaken the sadly stricken 14-time major winner Tiger Woods on golf’s immortal fairways.

If DNA uniquely receptive to experimentation – however kooky – guaranteed immortality, Padraig’s likeness would already be chiselled into the Stackstown hills.

In the remarkable ‘Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind’ Yuval Noah Harari argues that the key factor in putting a man on the moon, or splitting that atom, was not knowledge.

Rather, it was ignorance, or “a willingness to admit ignorance… that no concept, idea or theory is sacred or beyond challenge.”

The author might have been revealing the guiding principles of Harrington’s sporting life.

If you heard that the Irishman was carrying a canoe paddle in his golf-bag this week, or that he was reciting lines from Harry Potter in his backswing, would you be surprised?

Harrington would happily have his hair styled a-la Jedward if he thought there was even a possibility it might help him read a 40-foot left-to-right putt.

This, after all, is the player who experimented with wearing glasses even though he has 20-20 vision, who once strapped a tennis-ball to his shoe as a balance aid.

And who, having confounded the laws of golfing probability by winning three major titles in 13 months, completely reconstructed the swing that had conquered the world.

Depending on your viewpoint, he is either a broad-minded, open-book; or somebody who should be of interest to the kind of men who wear white coats during their working day.

Even among those of us whose reservoir of admiration for Harrington is bottomless, it is difficult to desist from the odd infuriated howl as he continues his idiosyncratic march through life.

Yet look where his quirky route map has taken him.

Three majors, 33 professional wins, six Ryder Cup appearances, a shining light for all those who would squeeze every last blob of potential from the tube.

His longevity (20 years separate his first European Tour victory in Spain from last October’s Villamoura reawakening) speaks of an athlete who has retained his hard edge.

If he is not Ireland’s all-time greatest athlete (and the argument here is that the title IS his), he is certainly in the conversation, a contender walking up the 18th fairway.

If the Claret Jug was awarded on the basis of a golfer’s relentless curiosity, his capacity to engross, his willingness to deploy any search engine – from Google to his forever thirsty mind – for the answers that will permit him to rise up above his weaknesses…

Then, there would be no need to fret about how events at Birkdale might unfold this next week.

Already the engraver would be inscribing into the ancient urn the 17 letters that make up the name of golf’s most dogged and lovable nutty professor.