Step One of Padraig Harrington's grand plan to recreate Carnoustie 2007 has already been successfully completed; he won the Irish PGA Championship on Saturday, although broke with the script somewhat by prevailing by four shots instead of in a play-off. Last night, Step Two was proving rather trickier to negotiate.
The Dubliner arrived at The Open on the Sunday evening last year, had a quick peek at the course, a leisurely dinner and immediately got stuck into the mentals with his renowned sports psychologist Dr Bob Rotella. As defending champion this time around, he felt obliged to take the replica Claret Jug to show off to the kids competing in the Junior Open, up the road at Hesketh Golf Club. So it was to be an entirely different case of the "mentals" as 115 youngsters were invited to grill him in a Q&A session that was inevitably to be half Jeremy Paxman, half Bart Simpson. Perfect preparation it was not.
Still, Harrington was not about to moan. He has barely uttered a word of resistance in 12 months that has seen so many demands placed on his time that, at stages, he must have felt like ringing Sergio Garcia – the Spaniard whose dreams he trampled all over in that play-off – and screaming, in true Life Of Brian style, "You lucky, lucky bastard".
But come Thursday all the talking, all the reminiscing, all the back-slapping will blessedly stop. And Harrington clearly believes that if he is to take steps, three, four, five, six, seven, or however many it takes to reach that 18th green as the first European to retain the title in 102 years, then he must diligently follow the route he plotted in Angus. Maybe not down to the exact timings of visits to the gents, but more than a rough outline, all the same. God is in the detail.
"Dr Bob is staying with me again, I am attending the press dinner on the Tuesday night; in fact if I can do the same, then I will do," he told The Independent last week. "If I knew which socks I wore during the week, I would probably wear them again. Saying that, it's not a situation that I will be eating my dinner at 6:30 and be having spaghetti bolognese because that's what I did on the Monday night of Carnoustie. You have to realise that some circumstances do alter. For instance, last year, I never went to the putting green after Thursday morning. That's not a regular occurrence. At Muirfield, where I had a great chance to win, I probably spent four hours a day on the putting green. But then I wasn't putting well. But in terms of recreating what I did Carnoustie, well I've tried to create it at every tournament since.
"That discipline, the way I went about it ... it's about getting yourself prepared and making sure you're not panicking about getting everything prepared. You just have to be comfortable with yourself and play your game, and wait and be patient and be confident. That may all sound straightforward but it's the hardest thing to do in golf."
This is where Dr Bob comes in. Harrington credited many people for his breakthrough; from his wife, to his son, to the occasional ladybird, yet it was the greenkeeper of that complex terrain between his ears who apparently had the toughest job. By the Saturday night, as Harrington very uncharacteristically started telling anyone in the vicinity, "I'm going to win The Open, I'm going to win The Open", it must have been like trying to halt a runaway buggy charging towards the Barry Burn. "Bob had to try to stop me from overdoing it," confessed Harrington. "He stayed in my house all week, so I spoke to him, morning, afternoon and night. When I'm in Bob's company I'm always trying to discuss new things: what's happening, what I should be doing, what other people look like they're doing.
"But one of the things he said to me on Saturday night was, 'Hang on a second, you're already in the right spot. You don't need to develop any more'. I've probably lost many a tournament on a Friday or Saturday evening, being in contention and still trying to do more. This time, I was already there and until that blip, when walking up the 18th that first time, I stayed in the moment all the way until the winning putt went in." That moment had, in fact, been three hours of some of the most enthralling drama the game has ever had the privilege, and yes thanks to that "blip", the agony to witness. For Harrington's part he has only seen the unfolding of his pulse-pounding, eye-popping victory in fast-forward.
"The other day, we had some friends and relatives over and they were discussing my son's 'Can I put ladybirds in the Claret Jug' thing," he revealed. "And because they're from America they'd never seen it. So we put it on and it was the first time I'd seen it. I probably have 45 DVDs of that Open, different types, and yet I've never watched any of them, apart from a five-minute one which Wilson had made and shows the putts with music in the background. I did intend to watch it 'in real-time' if you like but I've never got around to it."
Until the "other night", surely? "Well, we actually fast-forwarded it to the end, to the interviewing and the prize-giving. It was pretty cringing stuff, watching me welling up with tears and all that. I said, 'I've got to leave the room watching this stuff'." In truth, the scenes have been on loop in Harrington's memory ever since. He will certainly never forget the expression on two particular faces. The first told him he was going to win The Open; the second told him he had just won The Open. The first was that of his then three-year-old, Paddy.
"You know, Ronan [Flood, his caddie] did a hell of a job dragging me back into the 18th after I had hit that second shot into the water and you can see from the pitch and the putt that I was back in the zone," explained Harrington. "But when I had holed out and looked up at the leaderboard, it hit home again and I felt like I had just thrown it away again. I then turned around and saw my son come running on to the green. I picked him up and he looked at me like I had just won The Open. I was a champion in his eyes and he made me feel like one. Once I walked off that green with my son, I knew I was going to win The Open and I knew I was going to lift the Jug."
Ah, the Jug, that precious wine receptacle that little Paddy so cutely asked Daddy if he could fill full of ladybirds. "Yes ladybirds have gone in there since, definitely," laughed Harrington. "And it wasn't that he fussed about it, but that I insisted we had to do it as he had said it and we had to fulfil my promise. I have some nice replica ladybirds that do sit in the Claret Jug to remind me of it and I've had some ladybirds engraved going into the Claret Jug. For me, they will always go together."
And then there is Sergio. Poor, poor, Sergio; the leader for four days who had earlier watched his seven-foot putt to win The Open shoe-horn around the hole.
"I was sitting in the recorder's hut watching that putt, telling myself I was going to win The Open," recalled Harrington. "Not once did I sit there going, 'I need him to miss, I want him to miss, miss.' All I did was sat there repeating, 'I'm going to win The Open'. Now, if I was going to win The Open that putt had to miss, but I didn't allow myself to get into a negative situation – 'Miss, miss, miss'. I just sat there and it carried on ringing through my head, 'I'm going to win The Open, I'm going to win The Open'.
"Not for a second did I consider that I was going to lose or that someone else was going to win. I had made no mental preparation whatsoever for that. So when I turned around and saw Sergio's face, I realised that somebody had indeed lost that day, and yes, I did feel terribly for him. I really, really felt for him. But maybe selfishly I was looking at it and saying, that could have been me. I don't know." Harrington's honesty is typically commendable in this regard, just as it was when he admitted that he was non-plussed watching Garcia's so-called exorcism of his Carnoustie demons at Sawgrass in May.
The Players may be the real deal to some in the game, and to them Garcia's victory may have gone a long way in making up for his Open shortfall. But not to Harrington. "The Players is only 'the fifth major' to anyone who has won The Players," he said. "A major is a major. Sergio knows that himself, and it's when he wins a major that he'll realise that the losses aren't as big a deal. When you do get your win, it makes all of those losses worthwhile. So he needs to go and win one in order for him not to worry about it, but I'm sure when he goes and wins one, he'll look back and say, 'Yeah, 2007 helped me win The Open'. He'll turn it into a positive. He'll say, well, that was a learning experience."
As a qualified accountant Harrington is into his "learning experiences". The latest one came at the US Open at Torrey Pines last month when he was partnered with the 2007 Oakmont hero, Angel Cabrera. Unwittingly, the Argentine delivered the ideal lesson of how not to defend a major title and Harrington all but unfurled his notebook and took notes. "It was probably nice playing with Angel," he said, meaning "useful" instead of "nice". "Just watching him, you could see how much more it meant to him that week.
"You could see that even when he was missing the cut, he was trying ever so hard to get back inside the cut and even when he had gone too far, he was still trying to keep it respectable. To me, he seemed to be trying too hard and I don't want to go down that road. I'll be trying to keep it as a separate challenge in its own right, not as a title defence.
"My performance this year at The Open has no reflection on my performance of 2007 and I've got to create that atmosphere for myself. There's no point in me going in trying to burden myself with the expectations. I have to try and downplay the significance of being there to defend the title and the expectations, pressures and stresses that go with it. As champion, there will be extra duties for me to perform, but I'm trying to convince myself that whatever I do at Birkdale, if I don't play well, they can't take Carnoustie away from me. I don't have anything to prove. I'll still be the Open champion of 2007."
Yet how many champions have turned up with that same gameplan only to be sucked into that futile vacuum of attempting to justify their "champion" standing. Most, if the record books are any guide at all. In the last decade, only Tiger has finished in the top 10 in the year after an Open victory and that was two years ago at Hoylake when he happened to become the first man to go back-to-back since Tom Watson in 1983. For Britain and for Europe, James Braid, that legend of Fife, last pulled off the trick at Muirfield in 1906, 100 years before Tiger.
Of course, in itself that isn't a bad gauge of the difficulty in defending, but as back-up evidence how about the stat that says that of the previous 10 champions only Ernie Els has also managed to make the top 20? Four of their number missed the cut, an incredible ratio seeing as Woods accounted for three of those years.
So why will Harrington fare any differently? He is not the type to declare that he will. Or to say he won't. Except if he can reprise that extraordinary mindset of Saturday night, Carnoustie, 2007. "I will win this Open, I will win this Open..." You heard it there first.
Second-season blues: How the past 10 Open champions have fared
*1998 BIRKDALE: JUSTIN LEONARD
Despite arriving as a top 10 player, finishes way down in 57th after disastrous third-round 82.
*1999 CARNOUSTIE: MARK O'MEARA
Also won The Masters in 1998 but was no equal to the infamous "Carnasty" experience as he misses the cut with rounds of 83 and 74.
*2000 ST ANDREWS: PAUL LAWRIE
Only 10 players finish behind the Scot as rounds of 78 and 75 leave him humiliated in a tie for 143rd.
*2001 LYTHAM: TIGER WOODS
Third-round 73 as, by his standards, Woods suffers a woeful major defence. Finishes in a tie for 25th.
*2002 MUIRFIELD: DAVID DUVAL
The former world No 1 performs adequately, with a tie for 22nd, before beginning a dramatic spiral down the rankings.
*2003 SANDWICH: ERNIE ELS
The South African has only finished outside the top four at The Open twice this century. This was one of them. Comes 18th.
*2004 TROON: BEN CURTIS The most unlikely winner depressingly turns in an all too likely defence, missing the cut at seven-over.
*2005 ST ANDREWS: TODD HAMILTON
Fares much like his predecessor and comfortably misses the cut after two 74s.
*2006 HOYLAKE: TIGER WOODS
Becomes the first back-to-back winner in 23 years in an emotion-filled major following the death of his father with a brilliant closing 67 for a two-shot victory.
*2007 CARNOUSTIE: TIGER WOODS
Fails in attempt to be first man to win three Opens on the run in 51 years. Second-round 74 casts him adrift, finishes 12th.Reuse content