Harrington primed for his party tricks and the mind game

Irishman slips into form at right time as self-belief is bolstered in pursuit of his first major
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Padraig Harrington is doing his party piece. It is a sweltering after-noon on the practice range at Golf National in Paris. Harrington has a driver in his hands, a ball teed up but has not taken his usual stance. Instead, he shuffles into the ball off a run-up of four or five paces, advancing menacingly like a batsman coming down the pitch intent on depositing the offerings of a slow bowler out of the ground. Of course, the little white golf ball goes even further.

Each time, contact is as crisp and clean as if Harrington was in his traditional stance. Each time, the ball curves according to the preordained draw or fade. "Wouldn't it be great," muses Dave McNeilly, Harrington's former caddie who happens to be nearby, "to have a six-shot lead in The Open and hit one like that at the last?"

"Even better," responds Harrington, "would be to have the balls to do that on your opening tee shot at the Masters. That would be something."

Nevertheless, should Harrington ever have a six-stroke lead playing the last hole in The Open and he does something extraordinary, at least it will have been honed on the practice range, like the rest of his game. The 34-year-old former accountant has twice finished fifth in The Open, including four years ago at Muirfield, where he finished one stroke outside a four-man play-off.

He was in Paris to begin his preparations for Hoylake. The bouncy conditions and wispy rough give the former landfill site outside Versailles a linksy feel. "I never have a problem switching back to links golf," said Harrington, who enjoyed a long amateur career before turning professional. "But I do have to play. I need a good run-up to The Open, and this is a good place to start."

His routine continued at the European Open at the K Club, where wind is always guaranteed, although there was probably more this year than even the Dubliner would care for. But he once again skipped the Scottish Open, because it is played at Loch Lomond, a beautiful course, a beautiful setting but not links golf.

"I like to play a tournament before the majors, it's good preparation, but before The Open I prefer to be playing links golf. More than getting used to the wind, or the chipping and putting, you have to have the right attitude. You have to be mentally with it. On a links it is even more important than on other courses to play the right shot at the right time."

So Harrington took himself off to the great links around Dublin, such as Portmarnock and the European Club, and also spent two days at Hoylake. Unlike most of his colleagues he has seen the course before, but not since the 1994 Home Internationals and the 1995 British Amateur, where he went out in the first round.

"I have played there before but not recently enough for it to be any sort of advantage," he said. "Everyone is going to be on the same level this time. Of course, the first thing you remember is the internal out of bounds. The other awkward thing is that because it is so flat, it makes depth perception difficult. There are a lot of crosswinds, and also the greens can get very quick because most of them are so flat. Usually, at The Open they keep the greens slower because of the wind and the undulations. I expect them to be quicker this year."

It is well-known golfing lore that whenever Harrington says he is struggling with his game or is uncomfortable on a course then it is time to get your money on him. The curse struck in reverse at Winged Foot, where Harrington finished two shots behind the surprise US Open champion Geoff Ogilvy after bogeying the last three holes.

He had gone the furthest into the final round without dropping a shot before the golf gods got him. "I never thought I was going to make a bogey," he recalled. "Until I bogeyed the 16th, I couldn't see it happening. I was in the frame of mind where I was only thinking about birdies.

"I felt so comfortable on the course. I didn't seem to find it as difficult as everyone else said they did. It was tough, but it was certainly fair. It might have helped at the 16th if I had already had a couple of bogeys and a couple of extra birdies during the round. When I bogeyed there, it was a complete shock. The shame was that I got my tee shots away on those last three holes and was in good positions.

"I watched what happened after I finished but I'm only really worried about what I did. The disappointment was to not take advantage of one of those occasions when you really feel in sync with the golf course.

"On the other hand, what I took away from the week is that I was comfortable on the course. When I was there for the US PGA [in 1997] I couldn't get round the course. I couldn't see myself making the cut - and didn't. It shows I've come a long way in nine years."

After a slow start to the season, caused by a bulky putter, Harrington has all but ensured his place in the Ryder Cup back at the K Club in September. He has also moved into form at just the right time. Not that he takes preparation for the majors quite as obsessively as Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods. "They are at the level where they can do that," he said. "If they win another tournament, it is not a big deal, it's all about the majors. For me, winning any tournament is a big deal." But if a big one comes along, his party piece is ready.