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ryder cup countdown Padraig Harrington is custodian of one of Ireland's most inspirational sporting back catalogues

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Padraig Harrington celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning the 136th Open Championships at Carnoustie (Martin Rickett/PA)

Padraig Harrington celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning the 136th Open Championships at Carnoustie (Martin Rickett/PA)

Padraig Harrington celebrates with the Claret Jug after winning the 136th Open Championships at Carnoustie (Martin Rickett/PA)

PADRAIG Harrington turned 50 on Tuesday, yet the eternally optimistic old champion will hardly view a landmark birthday as any kind of drifting into life’s semi-rough.

A relentlessly curious soul, it is easy to imagine the Dubliner – a teetotaller – toasting the milestone by sampling a large, invigorating draught from the cup of eternal youth.

And then, inevitably, heading to the practice range, this tinkering workaholic’s very favourite terrain on the planet, armed with a conviction that the day is approaching when he will fire a rifle shot at the notion that old timers are ill-equipped to touch golfing fantasy.

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Pádraig Harrington is turning 50 ahead of the his Ryder Cup captaincy. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Pádraig Harrington is turning 50 ahead of the his Ryder Cup captaincy. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Pádraig Harrington is turning 50 ahead of the his Ryder Cup captaincy. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Whatever the future holds, and it will arrive at another Ryder Cup fever pitch in just three weeks, Harrington is the custodian of one of the most eminent and inspirational of all Irish sporting back catalogues.

For many of us, any audit of the decades has this quirky, open-minded, over-achieving treasure as perhaps our most abundant wellspring of sporting joy.

Dare we say it in this age of cynicism, even a hero.

Harrington’s story offers eloquent expression to how far a big heart, an optimistic world view, an insatiable thirst for self-improvement, a ceaselessly inquisitive mind, and the kind of competitive qualities that are measured in gold can propel an athlete.

Of course, Padraig has an abundance of talent in his DNA – his father, Paddy, like Shane Lowry’s dad, Brendan, was an All-Ireland football winner – but his natural gifts do not remotely rival The Tiger or Rory or, indeed, Lowry.

Yet, in the space of 13 sun-kissed months that began at Carnoustie in July 2007, he remoulded the contours of what might be deemed possible from his good walk spoiled.

Three major titles, the first European in 102 years to successfully defend the Open Championship’s Claret Jug, Harrington stepped into the examination hall of nerve and revealed himself to be an unflinching student.

The sensory tingles have hardly been diluted by the passage of time.

His miraculous righting of the Carnoustie ship after straying into the territories of meltdown on the same 18th hole where, eight years earlier, Jean van de Velde endured his defining misery.

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Padraig Harrington lifts the Claret Jug after his four-stroke win of the 137th Open Championship in 2008 at Royal Birkdale. Photo: Getty Images

Padraig Harrington lifts the Claret Jug after his four-stroke win of the 137th Open Championship in 2008 at Royal Birkdale. Photo: Getty Images

Padraig Harrington lifts the Claret Jug after his four-stroke win of the 137th Open Championship in 2008 at Royal Birkdale. Photo: Getty Images

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A year later at Birkdale, there was a five wood for the ages, a 278-yard wonder off a downslope in a gusting left to right wind to five feet, the killshot that finally reduced Greg Norman’s unlikely and heroic challenge to matchwood.

Then onwards across the Atlantic, that wild, faraway stare that was all the evidence required to recognise that Harrington had again unlocked the door to The Zone; Sergio Garcia broken as the Irishman seized PGA glory.

Harrington’s popularity is sourced not just in those towering moments, but in the kind of man he is.

Like his good friend Lowry, his likeability is off the charts.

Interesting, interested, analytical in a compelling, nutty professor kind of way, willing to walk any road that might hold a solution to the golfing mysteries at its far end, plainly bewitched by the cards life dealt him, Harrington is the kind of open book who permits us to shine an intrusive real-time light on every page of his unfolding biography.

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Padraig Harrington holds the trophy after winning the 90th PGA Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club on August 10, 2008 in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Photo: Tim Sloan, Getty Images

Padraig Harrington holds the trophy after winning the 90th PGA Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club on August 10, 2008 in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Photo: Tim Sloan, Getty Images

Padraig Harrington holds the trophy after winning the 90th PGA Championship at Oakland Hills Country Club on August 10, 2008 in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Photo: Tim Sloan, Getty Images

So palpably decent, he has always been the easiest guy for whom to root.

Plainly investing everything of himself in the struggle, unbroken by crushing setbacks (remember all those runner-up finishes when victory was beckoning, or the DQ for failing to sign his card when lapping the rest of the field at The Belfry two decades ago) rising up above his own limitations, he was the Everyman painstakingly making himself great.

Searching for any tiny advantage, mining for nuggets of inspiration, he could be seen on the range standing on a tennis ball as he practiced; or wearing glasses to disimprove – yes, disimprove - his eyesight.

And so, brilliant and just a little bonkers, he became beloved.

He can – and does – talk for Ireland. But because he is so revealing, the antithesis of the modern trend to offer up not a single morsel of insight, the only regret is when he pauses for breath.

Because every syllable that surfaces from his reservoir of enlightenment tends to be informative and compelling.

As with his boxing namesake, Kellie, Harrington makes the heart soar precisely because he is so relatable and warm, because he places no checkpoint between himself and his audience.

He throws opens the doors and invites us in to the inner sanctums.

What you see is what you get, a ferocious competitor happy to decant gentle wisdom to anybody thirsting for understanding of an elite athlete’s mindset.

The modern day Ryder Cup is perhaps rivalled only by a Lions tour or the latest manufactured Conor McGregor non-event in the pantheon of the absurdly overblown, Sky turning the hoses of hype to full blast until every fairway and green is drowning in schmaltz and propaganda and megaphone rhetoric.

In this festival of corporate silliness, Ian Poulter, a modestly successful journeyman, morphs into the fist-pumping “mailman who always delivers”.

Placing blue-coloured goldfish in a team room is regarded as the last word in Churchillian leadership.

Yet even if broadcaster-manufactured passion about the confected entity that is Team Europe grates, some of us will happily become mini Jean-Claude Junckers or Ursula von der Leyens on the last weekend of September.

Because any team that has Harrington as its captain and Lowry among the foot soldiers is worthy of every last molecule of support.

This morning we imagine Padraig stepping out from beneath the rubble of the advancing decades, without a single negative thought for company, a semi-centurion still thirsty to drink from any available cup of knowledge.

A lover of the journey lost in his enthusiastic trek through the years.

One of the gigantic figures in Irish sport striding unburdened by anything other than hope and curiosity into the back nine of a life less ordinary.

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