Harrington repeats last year's Open trick

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The Independent Online

It may have happened when Old Tom Morris was a lad, but in modern times it has not been the norm to find the Open champion playing his warm-up tournament where spectators are allowed to accompany him down the fairways, where the only security is the lock on the gents and where the first prize is, get this, almost 100 times less than he will be competing for next week at Birkdale.

Suffice to say, Padraig Harrington is not your usual Open champion.

Today the Dubliner, who last year at Carnoustie became the first Irishman to win the Claret Jug since 1947, will tee it up in the first round of the Irish PGA Championship at The European Club, 30 miles south of the capital. He will be joined by a selection of club professionals and former Tour players, none of whom are ranked in the world's top 1000. It is akin to the Derby favourite having his prep race in a Wolverhampton seller.

Harrington will be doing so not out of the goodness of his green heart – although there are few more enthusiastic patriots – but simply to acclimatise to competitive links golf before next week's test on the Southport coast.

"Playing championship golf always sharpens your game and The European Club is a super links," explained Harrington yesterday. "It was great preparation for Carnoustie. I feel I had outsmarted everybody by having that four-round competition. I went into that Open feeling I was already one up on the field."

That is bad news for the Scottish Open – the European Tour event that begins tomorrow on the obviously non-links setting on Loch Lomond – but remarkable news for a tournament that a few years ago must have been worrying about its existence. The Irish PGA Championship used to be an annual stopping point for the island's finest golfers – Christy O'Connor Snr won it 10 times – but since the rise of the global professional it has found its standing inevitably diminishing by the season. Until, that is, Harrington expressed his interest to prepare at a links tournament last year.

The Irish PGA only too readily offered to change its calendar around to accommodate Harrington and also hurriedly found a links course good enough and a sponsor to make the financial rewards less paltry. This year Ladbrokes have put up half of the £50,000 purse and interest has inevitably increased. As well as Harrington there are fellow Ryder Cup heroes Philip Walton – who yesterday qualified for next week's Open – and Eamonn Darcy in the field of 120 and organisers are expecting record numbers to turn up.

That will obviously bring its fair share of distractions for Harrington, but he is not at all phased. Indeed, he claims that last year the proximity of the fans actually helped him prevail.

"You can't beat the spectators on the fairway," he said. "As I was walking down the 13th fairway in the final round and had just fallen two behind Brendan [McGovern] one of these elderly gentlemen walking just behind me turned to the other and said, 'It's really being put to him now, isn't it? We'll see what Harrington's made of now'. I turned and smiled at them and went on to birdie the next three to get myself in the lead."

Even then he had to conjure another birdie at the last to take the inspired McGovern, a club pro from County Meath, to a play-off.

"The best thing about it is that I won €12,500 and it felt as good as any win I ever had," Harrington said. "There was no question there were shots at The Open that I was better at because I'd played at The European Club. Without question that extra week on a links course helped me out. And as I only won it in a play-off, it must have won me the Open."

l Jean van de Velde will make an emotional return at next week's Open after being one of 12 players out of almost 300 to come through local qualifying yesterday. The Frenchman birdied the last at Hillside in Southport to earn his place at Birkdale. Van de Velde had hoped last year to qualify for Carnoustie, the scene of his spectacular second place finish in 1999, but a virus forced him to miss out.