Under-appreciated, under-valued, under-rated. Perhaps it is only when his generation is six foot under that the sporting world will eventually understand the full worth of Padraig Harrington. There have been six days since the Irishman's stunning, startling, staggering success in the USPGA Championship in Detroit and, in relation to the magnitude of his achievement, the reaction has been stilted, sterile, stunted. No doubt that has something to do with the events in Beijing, but certain media outlets which can normally be relied upon to throw a superlative at whichever fly is making the best of his way up that wall have been almost rude in their reservation.
Well, it was nothing much to get excited about, was it? The first European to win back-to-back majors? The first to lift the Wanamaker Trophy in 78 years? While it was easy to foresee the indifference in America – a country wherethe absence of Tiger Woods effected a depressing 15 per cent drop in viewing figures for the 2008 Open compared to 2007 (and Tiger was not even a factor at Carnoustie) – it was not so straightforward to account for any British apathy to the two-shot victory, which came courtesy of a 66-66 finish, the lowest in any major in more than a decade, three weeks after he produced one of the finest back nines of all time at Birkdale.
True, Harrington is not one of us, and neither does he want to be. But he is the next best thing, as well as being the next big thing.
Yet, listen to Harrington's brother Tadgh, a former bookie quite adept at shouting the odds, and it transpires that the shameful shrug of the so-whatters is even replicated on his home island. "The Irish public have a very strange love affair with Padraig," said his elder andex-caddy. "I hope that he has gone somewhat towards making them realise there's a lot of work that goes on in the background to get that, as people say, 'stare' – that look in his eyes."
At least the home city is agog at the deeds of the 36-year-old who should long have been their favourite son. A Dublin councillor has already set in motion the official wheel that will give Harrington the Freedom of the City, and the word is that once he returns from the Ryder Cup, an open-top parade will be held in his honour. (Intriguingly, this will be the first time an Irish sportsperson has been lauded in this fashion since Michelle de Bruin arrived back with her soon-to-be eradicated golden haul in Atlanta 12 years ago). But even as that bus passes, some "eejits" will be blarneying put-downs. Take this from the letters section of last Tuesday's Irish Times: "When Tiger comes back, not only will Harrington need to win again but he will also have to win against Tiger. Enjoy it whilst it lasts, Padraig, my bet is that this major was your last major."
A chap called "Gary" penned that searing piece of wisdom, and although in Ireland he is – now – in a minority, in America Gary would find many a barstool comfortable to his views. Unbelievably, Woods is still favourite to win the PGA Tour's Player of the Year (yes, they regard it as a global award) and, apparently, one of the main arguments for rating a one-major campaign above one of two majors is that Woods won the US Open while Tiger Woods was in the field. And you can't really argue with that.
Padraig certainly won't, as it is not in his make-up. From all the plaudits that have flowed from the fairways, a commonly shared view has radiated of a man whose head-down, work-harder philosophy has paid richly deserved dividends. On Sky Sports' Golf Night on Thursday, the former journeyman Mark Roe summed up the general attitude of the boys to their fellow range-toiler. "I remember him starting on the Tour and quite clearly you could never see this happening," said Roe. "He was a decent player, but there was nothing to intimate that he was going to be a great of the game. Apart from his work ethic.
"I recall at the K Club one year coming off the course at about 6pm. I was heading out to the trout ponds with my fly rod and there was Padraig on the chipping green. I went fishing for a good two hours. When I got back he was still out there chipping. This has become a theme throughout his career – he works and works and works until he cannot work any more. That is why he is a great."
Roe was quick to confirm that there are "greats" by nature and "greats" by application, and inevitably it is the Seve who will always win more votes than the Langer. If hesitation is always advisable before any comparison is made between a mortal and Woods (although it is surelyworth noting that Tiger has only won majors from the front going into the final round and that Harrington has won his three when trailing by six shots, two shots and three shots respectively), then it is fair to put Harrington alongside Garcia, the Spaniard who many would still have as the better player despite his two humblings at Carnoustie and now at Oakland Hills.
What must be first noted is the relationship between the pair. Discount whatever you may have heard about the wonderfully gracious manner in which Garcia took this particular defeat;in truth, it was a grade or two advanced from his kindergarten response to the first tearjerker. It has been obvious for a while that these Ryder Cup team-mates do not get on, and apart from the plain disparities in character – Harrington would be as likely to dance around on a green as Garcia would be to pass an account-ancy degree – it probably does all stem from that Carnoustie moment when Garcia walked past Harrington with a wide grin as the latter was plucking his ball out of the Barry Burn.
Harrington did not appreciate that and, 90 minutes later, neither did he much appreciate Garcia standing so close to him on the last tee-box of the play-off. Before he drove off he asked Garcia to move, and the resentment bubbled. Do not expect Nick Faldo to be pairing them next month in Valhalla; not after this "reconciliation", the nearest they had come to each other in 13 months.
The cool manner in which Garcia briskly shook Harrington's hand at the end of their enthralling Motown showdown said as much as the warm hug he kept back to give Ben Curtis, his fellow runner-up, a full half-hour later. Then there were Sergio's thinly disguised barbs in the press room, the first alluding to the luck he believes those such as Harrington receive – "You know, I said it before, there's guys that get a little bit fortunate; they get in contention, in a major, and manage to get things going their way" – and, perhaps more pointedly, although he could have been referring to the rest of the field in this regard, with the justification of his numbskulled, go-for-it approach on the 16th, where he found the water, he said: "What I'm not going to do is get on the 16th hole and try to hit it 40 yards left of the green. I mean, that's not the way I play."
Harrington pulled it slightly, but was 40 yards left of the water – and that is the way he plays. Wisely, cannily, assuredly, with an eye on the lowest number he can feasibly make on that hole, rather than in the whole tournament. It may well be a game of small margins, but the bigger the player, the bigger that margin. It is a lesson Garcia should learn and learn quickly, or else there will be other days spent in Harrington's shadow.
For the hottest player on earth there is only the light of challenges ahead; to this week's start of the dollar-laden FedEx Cup series, but primarily to the "Paddy-Slam", that major four-timer that is as jokey as it sounds to most, but one which has a deadly serious ring to the only ears that matter. Over to Tadgh to make the admission his younger brother never would make. "We spoke about it last night and absurd as it sounds to have the four trophies on your mantelpiece, as Tiger Woods did, Padraig definitely believes he can do it. He is in that place, and he really does firmly believe that if he keeps working, keeps the head down... well, anything is possible."