Golf: 'I would have been a false hero'

Padraig Harrington was set to be the man who won the Ryder Cup until shoot-out at the Seventeenth

PADRAIG HARRINGTON was praying for a late tee-off time, one that allowed his jet lag and his stomach to settle for a few more hours. So 8.40am on a tombstone-grey morning in northern Germany was not the ideal therapy for a body and mind still working to US time. He would have to be up to scratch too; he had Monty for company. "I've been feeling so bad the last couple of days," said Harrington, sipping a cup of tea after a highly respectable first round of 70, two under par, at the Linde German Masters. "I thought I had the flu coming on. I'd be feeling great, then half-an-hour later I'd be feeling sick. I was just drained of energy."

PADRAIG HARRINGTON was praying for a late tee-off time, one that allowed his jet lag and his stomach to settle for a few more hours. So 8.40am on a tombstone-grey morning in northern Germany was not the ideal therapy for a body and mind still working to US time. He would have to be up to scratch too; he had Monty for company. "I've been feeling so bad the last couple of days," said Harrington, sipping a cup of tea after a highly respectable first round of 70, two under par, at the Linde German Masters. "I thought I had the flu coming on. I'd be feeling great, then half-an-hour later I'd be feeling sick. I was just drained of energy."

His round had been a fight against wind and rain, but most of all against the fall-out of an extraordinary three days in Brookline. It had been hard to get himself pumped up for a sparse gallery when his last round had been played in front of half of America. "I had to pull away from a few shots today because it was too quiet," he said. "You could hear a buggy driving around 200 yards away."

Harrington had stepped off Concorde on Monday morning, gone to the gym to wake himself up and then flown with Jarmo Sandelin and Jose Maria Olazabal in a private plane straight to Cologne. He was tempted to return to Dublin, but knew that if he did it would be even harder to tear himself away for another event in another town in another country.

The Ryder Cup can do that to you, make you wonder what else there is to a golfing life. Like the boy getting back on the bicycle after a crash, Harrington wanted to get right back on the gravy train just in case it started without him. Eight of his Ryder Cup colleagues had done the same and though they all talked metronomically about the importance of finishing the year well, of the Order of Merit and all the other household chores, what they really wanted was to put some distance, a few different memories, between them and that devastating defeat. Only Lee Westwood was unable to summon the effort. See you Wednesday, he had said to Colin Montgomerie, and pulled out on Tuesday.

Normally, being a gregarious fellow, Harrington likes the pro-ams which traditionally precede the main event. But he had to admit that the rain which curtailed his round in the company of a doctor and an artist had come as a blessed relief. A few more hours' sleep. There was no respite from the aftermath of the Ryder Cup anyway. Sergio Garcia, whose caddie ended up in hospital after a fight with some drunken US supporters, voiced the hope not that Europe would recover the Ryder Cup next time, but that the Ryder Cup itself would recover from the mayhem which accompanied America's historic victory at the Country Club in Brookline. "If the Ryder Cup has to be like this in the future, I don't want to play any more Ryder Cups," added Garcia's countryman Miguel Angel Jimenez, while Colin Montgomerie just muttered "ugly, very ugly" to anyone who came within hearing distance, and he wasn't talking about the weather.

Harrington himself wanted to remember and forget all at the same time. He had been a pivotal figure in the drama which unfolded on the last afternoon in Brookline. Though the Americans had annihilated the European challenge in the top half of the singles, Olazabal, Monty and Paul Lawrie seemed sure to provide three of the four points Europe needed for victory. The fourth had to come from Harrington, who was playing Mark O'Meara in the seventh match.

"I never looked at the scoreboard, but I knew things weren't going well from the cheers. The crowd kept telling Mark, 'You're the one', they were trying to encourage him, but they were actually putting him under more pressure."

On the 16th tee, Harrington saw Mark James, the European captain. It was becoming so serious all they could do was laugh. "People thought he'd come to tell me my match was critical, but all he did was tell me which club Lee Westwood had played on that hole and I was laughing at the whole situation. I was laughing at the irony. You know, it's meant to be a game and you've worked so hard to get into this sort of position, practised so hard and then this is it, like, one of the most fearful moments of your life."

He had laughed on the first tee on the first morning when he had seen the Ryder Cup standing there, the object of all this nonsense, and realised perhaps for the first time that he, Padraig Harrington, the accountant from Dublin, the late- blossoming pro who had been told by his accountancy tutor not to waste his time on golf, was going to be part of it. His first shot in the tournament, a rifling six-iron to the heart of the green, suggested that he was quite ready for the challenge.

"You have to remember that I was one of the best prepared rookies in the game. I'd played three Walker Cups, I've won matches I should have lost and lost matches I should have won. I did just about everything and I didn't have the same confidence in my game in those days that I have now. People said the Ryder Cup would be different, but I tell you what, when you stand on the first tee at Port-marnock as an 18-year-old with the crowd standing 10 deep 100 yards down the fairway and five yards to your right, all you're praying for is that you don't kill anyone. Right then I would have accepted going into the water and playing from there. But one of the good things about the Ryder Cup is that you know everyone else is under pressure too."

Harrington sensed now that the crowds were gathering and the searchlight had fallen on him and O'Meara. On the 10th, Davis Love had walked ostentatiously across his path. "He was just letting me know he'd won," Harrington says. But, otherwise, he saw no one. "It was like me and my caddie were in our own little world and no one was going to affect us. I didn't want to look sideways, I didn't want to look at the crowd. It was the most concentrated round of golf I've ever played because I wasn't swinging the club great, I was relying totally on my mental strength." A perfect wedge into the final green sealed Harrington's win and a precious glimpse of defiance for the Europeans. For almost the first time in his life, Harrington was speechless.

"I'd never even thought of winning the match," he says. "Never got ahead of myself, and so when I won the whole excitement of winning was right there in that one moment and I couldn't talk. At the time it meant a lot, I thought about the other Irish guys who had holed winning putts down the years, Eamon Darcy, Philip Walton and Christy O'Connor. I knew everything was sliding away from us, but I hoped maybe my victory would turn everything back round again.

"I knew Olly was in trouble so I ran back down the 18th. Actually, I floated down there. My feet didn't hit the ground, the emotion was just incredible." He arrived just in time to see Justin Leonard's putt and the war dance. A burly cameraman stood right on the line of Olazabal's putt and Harrington shouted at him to move. "I could have put a megaphone in his ear and he wouldn't have been able to hear, there was that much noise. You know, in one way, it was nice to see the Americans getting so excited. I mean I was standing right next to the guy who heckled Olly on the 18th and he was just an ordinary guy, not a lager lout, and when I turned round on him, he just looked totally embarrassed.

"The players shouldn't have gone on the green, but in that instant I actually thought we'd lost too. I'd forgotten about Olly and I was on his team. All I can say is that all the Americans I played against were perfect gentlemen."

Once the Spaniard's long- range putt had slipped past, the Americans were home. "It was only about five or ten minutes after I'd finished. Having all that elation taken away so quickly, that was tough." In the team room, no one said much. Not even Jarmo Sandelin, who had lifted spirits all week with his eccentric self-deprecating brand of humour. "No one made a big speech or anything. We weren't like that in our team room. All this stuff about the Alamo and George Bush, we'd have laughed about that and we didn't need it. Our inspiration came from the fact that we were underdogs and we were a team. We wanted to enjoy the week, so after a while we thought, 'OK, we've lost, but let's go out there with our heads held high.' It was a collective decision."

Harrington has already begun to reflect that the way it worked out was all for the best, not for the team but for him. What would have happened if his win had saved the Ryder Cup? "I would have been a false hero. People would have been making me out to be better than I am. I might have started believing the hype and that would be dangerous."

He has consciously stayed out of the transatlantic nose- thumbing of the past few days. People in golf have short memories, he reckons. Brookline one day, Cologne the next. "This is golf, this is a game and you get on with it," he says. Samuel Ryder could not have put it better himself.

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