Masters 2015: Padraig Harrington aims to show there's life in old masters

After missing out on Augusta last year, Ireland's triple major winner is in fine form again. He tells Kevin Garside what it means to be heading back

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The Independent Online

No doubting the most popular win in golf this year. Padraig Harrington’s victory at the Honda Classic in February revived not only a great golfer’s fortunes but gave every veteran campaigner hope that he has a shot left in him.

The victory secured Harrington’s PGA Tour playing privileges and a place at next week’s Masters after he missed out last year when his major exemptions expired. Harrington, now 43, has been forced in recent seasons to address his own mortality as a professional athlete.

His inability to conjure the magic as he had done routinely in the years of high achievement was a development for which he was not prepared. Missing out on the Ryder Cup in 2012 following a bout of the yips hurt him. His absence at Augusta was another blow to morale.

“Always in my career I have ended up doing what I set out to do somehow,” the Irishman said. “In the last couple of years, instead of doing something special, particularly to qualify for the Ryder Cup I would say, I have failed and that came as a shock to me. Not being in the Masters last year was a shock. In my youth, I would be anxious to make things happen – and maybe the lack of urgency was a factor.

“I really have struggled, as have a lot of people who win major tournaments. You look back at them and you try and live up to them, play up to them. I just got very intolerant of my mental game, my focus. It was never swing related, all focus related.”

 

Ageing is about acceptance, about managing decline and taking opportunities when they present themselves. While it is not possible to maintain the intensity that burned in the peak years, the potential for episodic power surges remains.

Many would argue that Harrington took maximum advantage of his gifts with his three major victories, two back-to-back in that purple patch seven years ago. The prospects of another are perhaps remote, but he was never one for negative thinking. With the help of technology and balls that fly to the moon he is longer off the tee than ever, while his Masters return has triggered all manner of romantic musings.

“It feels like I missed a number of years, not one, which sums it all up. There is nothing like it. You go back year after year and that creates a mystique. Is there a tournament anywhere in the world that you get an invite? You get that bit of paper through and you are excited. You turn up, go in the gate down Magnolia Drive and you are excited. The first person I met there was Sam Snead. The opportunity to meet old pros is still there because they do turn up. The way the whole thing is run, there is a sense of awe about it.”

Inevitably, any conversation about Augusta involves Rory McIlroy, who is emulating Harrington’s 2009 experience in attempting a third consecutive major victory at the Masters. The idea that the weight of history might be heavy on his fellow Irishman is dismissed by Harrington.

“At that stage you are preparing the exact same way for every major. Yes, there was more hype, but there is a saturation point and I was at it. There will be the same hype on Rory next year as this, regardless of what he does this time. He is always at saturation point but he is well able to manage it because he has to. It’s a bit like Tiger. He was brilliant at managing it because that was his life. It has become Rory’s life.”

McIlroy took the silver medal for best amateur at Carnoustie in 2007, when Harrington won the Open for the first time. Harrington had a lot of kind words for the teenage prodigy that day but could never have imagined that McIlroy would come to dominate the sport as he has.

“There are so many young players who show potential and don’t come through. There are only a few that do succeed and Rory has done that. He has come back from a couple of slumps. Being able to come back from setbacks like Augusta [2011] takes tremendous fortitude and gives great belief. He must feel bulletproof.”

McIlroy’s command of the stage justifies comparisons with the modern era’s greatest player. Harrington is comfortable with that. “Rory is a bit like Tiger in the sense that you always look for his name after the first round. You even look before the draw to see where he was playing. If Tiger got his teeth into a tournament it did worry everybody and Rory would be a bit like that. If he gets in the lead now he has proved he can hold it. There have not been too many who could do that.

“Rory is the man now, Tiger was then. Rory has the ability to play great golf and if it turns sour for a while he can work through it and get it back. If he doesn’t win it this time it is not the end for him.”

Harrington, who is in action at Houston this week, brings a new approach to the Masters in this phase of his career. When he can attack the pins he will, especially if fate calls him forward on Sunday. “If you go into the back nine of any major and you are leading and shoot nine pars you would be unlucky to lose. If you don’t shoot two or three under on the back nine at Augusta you’ll get passed. That’s huge pressure.

“People think 13 and 15 are reachable par-fives but you have to make birdies. They know how to create drama. They know how to make it difficult, but also how to make it easy on some holes to make birdies. If you don’t make them you feel terrible and that’s a big thing at Augusta.”

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