by Dermot Gilleece, Sunday Independent
In a conversation I had with Paddy Harrington six weeks before his death in July 2005, he recalled a winter’s day when his teenage son, Padraig, pleaded to join him at Stackstown Golf Club even though the ground was covered in a thick blanket of snow. “When we went up there, he cleared away snow from one of the tees and began hitting balls into a sea of white,” said Paddy. “The thought of missing a day’s practice would have killed him.”
This was the club, now boasting a membership of 1,166, where Paddy was a founder member when it was launched in 1975. Indeed he, and his fellow policemen in An Garda Siochana, literally dug the course out of an awkward, elevated site in the south west suburbs of Dublin. In the process, Stackstown became a cherished playground where the five Harrington boys, including Padraig, took their first, tentative swings at the Royal and Ancient game.
As it happened, a devoted father never witnessed the ultimate rewards which admirable dedication would bring his youngest son. But he did not need to. With nine victories on The European Tour International Schedule by mid 2005, along with success in the United States and a high placement on the Official World Golf Ranking, the Dubliner’s competitive future seemed secure. All that remained was a breakthrough at Major Championship level.
Now, 13 years after coming through the Qualifying School Final Stage at San Roque, Harrington’s European Tour successes number 14 and include three Major titles – back-to-back Open Championships and the first victory by a European native in the US PGA Championship since Tommy Armour back in 1930. Those cold, bleak days on Stackstown’s hilly perch, have delivered a truly extraordinary dividend.
Meanwhile, one of the two Bobs in his life could readily see the value of a solid family base in the player’s development. “Padraig has a wonderful spirit; a wonderful soul,” said American sports psychologist, Dr Bob Rotella. “His parents brought him up right and he was smart enough to listen to them.”
The other Bob is the grizzled Scot who has completed ten years as Harrington’s coach from the time they first came together after the US Open Championship at the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1998. It was there, after finishing in a share of 32nd place while playing to the best of his ability, Harrington concluded he lacked the necessary technique to compete successfully at that level of the game.
Bob Torrance is understandably proud of his star pupil. “We have yet to see the best of Padraig,” he said recently. Would that include taking on Tiger Woods for the top spot in the professional game? The Scots burr emanating from a deep bed of gravel, became even deeper than usual. “Maybe Tiger will be setting his sights on him!” exclaimed the man from Largs.
He then revealed that, within a few days of Harrington’s stunning victory in the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills in August, they had already talked twice in transatlantic phone calls to discuss “some problems with his game.” “I had seen from the television that his address position wasn’t good during the final round, which is why his driving was poor,” said the coach.
“He always discusses things with me while he’s away; things to work on before his next tournament, and winning his second Major in three weeks didn’t change that.” So, could we take it that Torrance considered it a fruitful summer? “Oh yes,” he replied. “His performance in the Open at Royal Birkdale was unbelievable, especially the back nine which was as good as I’ve ever seen from anyone.”
Which led, almost inevitably, to the reason Torrance now speaks of Harrington and Woods in the same breath. His assessment was crushingly simple. “What Padraig did at Oakland Hills, getting up and down brilliantly over the finishing holes, Woods does all the time,” he said. “That’s why he’s so good. But they’re both wonderfully dedicated. And that doesn’t mean hitting a few balls on the practice range in the morning and leaving. It means hitting balls all day. Then on to the short game, bunker play, putting, every day of your life. I’ve been with Padraig when we’ve done 12 hour days together, and before his injury, Tiger never stopped working. While we know about Gary Player and Ben Hogan, I can also tell you that Sam Snead practised every day of his life.”
The decidedly modest position which Harrington occupied in the game 20 years ago, was light years removed from these great names. Yet those who travelled the 30 miles from Dublin to watch the Leinster Boys’ Championship at Royal Tara, were rewarded with a precious glimpse into the future. On July 21, 1988, the 16 year old scratch player from Stackstown captured the title by a crushing 11 strokes. Among those in his wake on that occasion was Gary Murphy, who went on to join him on The European Tour where they remain close friends and colleagues.
Interestingly, at the time, Harrington did not have heroes from the big, international stage. “To be honest, I was very insular,” he recalled. “I was more concerned with my peers, the guys I was trying to beat in the various amateur tournaments I was involved in. So, unlike most kids who eagerly followed the performances of great players like Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo, I didn’t have an idol. For instance, the real star of 1989 for me, was Scotland’s Colin Fraser (now a teaching professional with the Roland Stafford Golf Schools in America), who beat me at Number One in a Boys’ International match at Nairn.”
He went on: “There were important ways in which those amateur days shaped my career. After going close to winning, only to be disappointed on quite a few occasions, I was patient enough to hang around in the belief that things would change. Later, when I became frustrated at all my second place finishes as a professional; I kept telling myself that things would turn around, just as they had done in my amateur days. Gradually, the concept of winning appeared to get easier until eventually, some really amazing things began to happen.”
As a teenager, Harrington learned golf by observation, with the odd tip from his father who played off single figures. It was not until he became part of the Golfing Union of Ireland’s national panel in his late teens that he was exposed to professional tuition. In the event, he adopted Irish national coach, Howard Bennett, as his tutor and they remained together until the player took up with Torrance in 1998.
In November 2006, two days after beating no less a figure than Woods in a play-off for the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan, Harrington was at the Royal Dublin Society in the Irish capital for a rather special ceremony. Topped by a fetching, pancake hat, he was attired in robes comprising two shades of blue separated by a narrow green stripe while being conferred with an Honorary Fellowship by Dublin Business School, in association with Liverpool’s John Moores University.
This was Harrington the accountant, a world removed from the international golf circuits he has trod with such distinction. Yet the contrasting qualifications seemed to sit easily on his athletic frame to the extent that he considered his accountancy studies invaluable towards developing competitive skills at the highest level of his chosen sporting pursuit.
“Passing the finals of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants examination at 23 was memorable for me so it was a terrific honour to be invited back to the Dublin Business School to receive the Fellowship,” he said. Typically precise, he went on to explain that, not having done his articles, he would need about three years work experience before being entitled to practice as a fully-fledged accountant. He took obvious pride, however, in a qualification which is recognised worldwide.
“I started accountancy when I was 18 because I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school,” he went on. “It struck me as a good, general business degree and that’s essentially what it is. Half the course has to do with what people would term accountancy and the other half is mostly business stuff including business law.
“My original plan was to get a job in the golf industry via accountancy but halfway through the exams, I decided to become a tournament professional and try my luck on The European Tour. So from that point onwards, whenever I applied myself to studying, golf was always in back of my mind which eased the exam pressure.
“The interesting thing is that when I was competing at golf, I could reassure myself that there was always the accountancy to fall back on if things didn’t go as I hoped. In this way, my academic pursuit eased the stress on my sporting ambitions, and vice versa.
“Meanwhile, accountancy also gave me the discipline to manage my time properly. Nobody likes doing exams and it takes a bit of effort and commitment to get through them, especially with other options in your life. But I acquired the organisational discipline to manage these things, to commit to something and see it through to a satisfactory conclusion.”
His accountancy qualification played no part in the decision to join forces with the International Management Group. “I joined them essentially because of their impressive reputation, which has proved to be well founded,” he said.
With the same, Yorkshire born manager, Adrian Mitchell, and the same accountant, Philip Barker, from the outset, a 13 year journey together has brought some amazing things. When victory was secured in the US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, I witnessed a jubilant Harrington with Mitchell at his side. “It’s hard to believe,” were the only words a normally loquacious player could find. “It’s hard to believe, Mitch.”
But one could easily imagine his father visualising such magic, from those early, snow-clad days at Stackstown.