Golf: Happy returns for Harrington

Andy Farrell talks to an Irish golfer determined to live up to his potential
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The Independent Online
Of course, being an Irish player at the Irish Open is not quite like being Tiger Woods, but it is not far off it. Not since John O'Leary in 1982 has a home player survived the high levels of expectations and hospitality which are poured on them, and occasionally down their throats, to win the event.

This is not something Padraig Harrington, like the sponsors Murphy's, is bitter about. It is just a matter of finding a way to cope with it this week at Druids Glen. "I'm going to try something new this year," he said. "Do you block it all out, or do you enjoy the week? I'm going to try and strike a happy balance. Do the right amount of work to play well, but then enjoy the social side as well. I'll keep my time at the golf course to a minimum.

"There is no way you can treat it like just another tournament. It is difficult not to get caught up in the hype. All the Irish golfers have a lot of demands, even just simple things like getting tickets for all the family and friends who want to be there. This is only my second Irish Open. In 10 years, I'll probably still be saying that I'm trying a new tack this time."

Harrington arrived at last year's Irish Open having already won a tournament in a highly impressive start to his rookie season. He missed the cut. That was only a blip, however, and his 11th place on the money earned him a trip to the US Open earlier this month. Struck by flu early in the week, the 25-year-old Dubliner again missed the cut.

But he gained some valuable lessons, including a first-hand experience of Tigermania. "I was on the putting green when he came on to it. Suddenly, the crowds were 10 deep and they were hooping and hollering. After about 10 minutes, I had to leave because of the suffocating heat. There was no air getting on to the putting green. He says he feels tired after a tournament, but playing one tournament for him is like playing three tournaments for us."

Harrington, who waited to complete his accountancy exams before turning professional at the age of 24, has noted how Woods and the senior European players go about peaking for the majors. After the Irish, comes the World Invitational at Loch Lomond and the Open Championship, where he was 18th last year, in quick succession. "I found it easier to peak for an event when I was an amateur," said the former Irish champion and three-time Walker Cupper.

"I knew exactly which tournaments I wanted to play well in. There was only about one a month and all the tournaments beforehand were warm-ups. As a pro, you play every week and try to play your absolute, 100 per cent best whenever you are on the golf course. Some weeks you'll play well, and the next week it will not be so good because of the fact that you tried so hard the week before."

At the start of the year, Harrington played 10 weeks in a row, in such far-flung places as Australia, South Africa, the Middle East and southern Europe, an experiment he will not repeat. Since then, he has tried to play three out of every four weeks.

"It is difficult because all the tournaments are quality events and there may be a week you want to take off, but it is a course you like and did well at last year. I'd love to be playing in the French Open this week, to be out there competing, but I didn't want to go into the Open playing four weeks in a row.

"The hardest thing for a young professional to do is take a week off when you are playing well. The experienced pros are more disciplined about setting their schedule and sticking to it. Langer won back-to-back at the Italian and the B & H and then took the next week off. Most professionals would think, 'This is my good run, I've got to keep playing'."

Like Woods, Harrington tries to keep his goals out of the public arena. He does not need to be told that at 17th in the Ryder Cup table, a win any time soon would put him in the frame to join the Ulsterman Darren Clarke at Valderrama in September. It is not something he talks much about either.

"I've had a solid year, without having done anything spectacular yet. I'm 18th on the Order of Merit, without a really streaky patch of form. But it's interesting that from what a couple of people have said to me, that people were expecting a couple of wins, or another win, contending in majors. You have to keep it realistic. I had an exceptional year last year, but if I keep going this way, maybe improve on it, it'll still be a decent year."