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Irish leader 'Not since Seve has a European team had such a compelling figurehead' - Roy Curtis on Padraig Harrington

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Pádraig Harrington. Photo: Sportsfile

Pádraig Harrington. Photo: Sportsfile

Pádraig Harrington. Photo: Sportsfile

AS PADRAIG Harrington unfurled an unlikely weekend surge for the old terrain of his peak golfing years, a realisation dawned like a Georgian sun over Amen Corner.

It was the understanding – jolting for a lapsed member of the Ryder Cup church, one long grown agnostic about the transatlantic duel’s charms - that 2021’s most irresistible piece of sporting theatre looms on the September horizon.

With the riveting, singular, ferociously bright, eternally curious and marvelously kooky Harrington as a captain, how could it possibly be otherwise?

Not since Seve Ballesteros was go-karting around Valderrama 24 years ago, eyes ablaze, a matador consumed by his dual with the snorting Yankee beast, has a European team had such a compelling figurehead.

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Seve Ballesteros with the Ryder Cup. Photo: Getty Images

Seve Ballesteros with the Ryder Cup. Photo: Getty Images

Seve Ballesteros with the Ryder Cup. Photo: Getty Images

Harrington, of course, is a vastly different figure to the late, hot-blooded Iberian Vesuvius. Seve, touched both by authentic genius and a tormenting need to win, was unique: Swashbuckling, charismatic, a ticking time-bomb who could ooze matinee-idol Latin charm one moment and then erupt in a volcanic detonation of competitive rage the next.

Ballesteros was a natural-born gladiator; the Maximus Decimus Meridius of the fairways, Augusta or Lytham or Pebble Beach his coliseum; sand wedge, putter and cold, intimidating stare his weapons of choice.

Harrington, and this is intended only as a compliment, brings something of the nutty professor to the arena.

Bright, quirky, with a hugely inquisitive mind and a willingness to walk any road that might hold a solution to the golfing mysteries at its far end, it is possible to imagine him in a laboratory coat, eyes fastened to a microscope, poring over the genetic sequence of the coronavirus.

All the time wondering what the alien contents of that petri-dish could teach him about how to execute a 190-yard seven-iron approach shot to a front-left pin.

If Seve was the toga-wearing Russell Crowe, Harrington is more Luke O’Neill: The analytical scientist with a huge work ethic and an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Utterly unafraid, here is a man who once drew glances of astonished wonder from his driving range peers as he practiced while balancing precariously on a tennis ball; blessed with 20-20 vision, he took to wearing eyeglasses to deliberately alter his depth perception.

That willingness to be different, to step outside the boundaries of convention, brought Harrington, an artisan with a small fraction of the natural talent bestowed on some of his peers, three major titles and the fulfilment that comes with overachieving in the most brutal environment.

Many scientists can be grey and one-dimensional; Harrington, though, thinks in glorious technicolour.

That compelling, thoughtful world view was revealed again to anybody fortunate enough to observe his post-round interview with Sky Sports in Dubai last Saturday.

It ought to have been enough that in his 50th year (he celebrates the landmark birthday on the last day of August) the Dubliner found himself again on the first page of the leaderboard at a big tournament.

By the time dusk had fallen on the Arabian desert on Sunday evening, Harrington would have secured a share of sixth place, some 16 shots ahead of the world number five and freshly crowned US PGA champion, Colin Morikawa.

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Padraig Harrington of Ireland during the third round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 30, 2021 in Dubai. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Padraig Harrington of Ireland during the third round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 30, 2021 in Dubai. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Padraig Harrington of Ireland during the third round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club on January 30, 2021 in Dubai. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Among those trailing in his wake were a sextet who could form the main body of his European team at Whistling Straits: Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Shane Lowry.

But, for all that he defied the march of time with his play, it was his post-round interview that proved the highlight of a golfing weekend once more tainted by Patrick Reed’s dubious interpretation of what constitutes fair play.

In a world where sportsmen and women go out of the way to hide their true selves from the public, where vacuous PR-spin is the prevailing language of sporting discourse, Harrington is a joyous outlier.

His willingness to excavate so many of his innermost thoughts and place them on public display sets him apart.

What shines through, each time he opens that window to his soul, is his humanity; all those vulnerabilities and frailties; the brilliant, barmy, always open and accessible mind; the childlike enthusiasm for his craft.

His sheer love of the game. And underpinning it all: An essential decency.

Harrington is an antidote to all those self-obsessed narcissists, whinging multi-millionaires and cynical opportunists who roam the sporting plains.

An absurdly high-achiever who just happens to be a lovely and fascinating human being.

As impressively as any athlete, he makes his life the backcloth on which to showcase what Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Buzz Bissinger, calls the “human ingredients that make a player a player and make a game a game.”

For all that its better duels can trigger an authentic surge of the blood, the Ryder Cup's overblown hype and gimmickry – remember when blue goldfish in the European team-room were pinpointed as a stroke of genius – can be nauseating.

The absurd coining of Ian Poulter as The Mailman because – pass the sick bucket - “he always delivers” ignores the inconvenient reality that the Englishman has never been able to locate the letter box on the weekend at the Open Championship, Masters, US Open or PGA.

In truth, the Ryder Cup can seem like a consolation prize for those players like Poulter who have fallen short on the four weekends that are the true measure of golfing greatness.

And an inconvenient distraction for giants like The Tiger who understand that immortality is to be found beyond a 5&4 victory over Raphael Jacquelin or Andrew Coltart.

There is, too, a suspicion that the role of the captain is overstated: The notion that there is some kind of genius attached to sending out Rory McIlroy in the fifth as opposed to the opening singles game on Sunday is, frankly, ludicrous.

Yet, once things reach a fever-pitch by the shores of Lake Michigan in September – we are assuming the 234 days that stand between now and the first tee-shot being hit at Whistling Straits will be enough to allow all Covid hurdles to be cleared – the Harrington factor will induce us from our long coma of Ryder Cup indifference.

The Irishman, even if he is a millionaire many times over, stands apart as a shining, inspirational reaffirmation of sport’s old, imperiled Corinthian ideals.

A place where the ultimate goal is not to lead a lavishly upholstered life or to seek unfair advantage through a fusillade of cheap shots or a dodgy drop, but, rather, simply, to be the very best you can be.

But, then, remaking himself, drilling every unexplored field in the hope of striking fresh fuel for his journey, has never daunted a player to whom nothing came easy.

It is why Harrington just by being Harrington has come to hold the title deeds to a little part of the sporting soul.

And why, come the autumn, those of us who have not worshiped at the Ryder Cup altar for many years will happily put down the prayer mat and offer up a novena or two that Paddy might retrace Seve's 1997 steps.

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