Padraig Harrington's keen intelligence might not extend to a detailed knowledge of the works of Shakespeare, but he may as well be King Lear in a polo shirt as he contemplates conditions at Turnberry next week. "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks," is not exactly how the man from Ballyroan on the south side of Dublin puts it, but that is the message. The worse the weather, the better Harrington rates his chances of lifting the Claret Jug for the third successive year, a feat last achieved by Peter Thomson in the mid-1950s.
"I do like at least some of the conditions during the week at a major tournament to be quite difficult, or close to extreme," he says at his home in Ireland, "because it does limit the amount of people who can cope with that, and that's one of my strengths. It's not that I can't play in the nicest weather, but if you get four nice, sunny days, it brings more people in. But if you throw in at least one windy day and maybe one miserable day, it certainly brings it down maybe to only 50 per cent of the field."
And even if that 50 per cent don't mind being there in wind and rain, he adds, only about half of those can actually cope with the elements. So suddenly you're competing against just a quarter of the field. That was certainly the case at Royal Birkdale last year, where the only benign conditions were to be found in the clubhouse, suiting Harrington down to the rain-lashed, gale-buffeted ground. But there was one other former Open winner equal to the atrocious weather, his final-day playing partner Greg Norman. And because it was Norman, Harrington lifted the blinkers he normally wears at the business end of a major championship.
"I could actually tell you nearly every shot he hit, right now," he says. "But I had to convince myself not to get carried away with the hype and excitement of Greg Norman winning a major at 53 years of age. I had to be very professional in my attitude, and be very hard, you know, that this wasn't going to be his day. I wasn't going to get drawn into the public feeling that this was an unbelievable story."
That particular unbelievable story did not unfold, not least because of Harrington's determination that it would not. But another scarcely believable story did. For years, Harrington's record in majors was little more than respectable. He tied fifth in the Open in 1997 and 2002, fifth in the US Open in 2000 and 2006, and fifth in the Masters in 2002. Fifth place seemed to be his plateau. But then came Carnoustie 2007, Birkdale 2008, and the USPGA three weeks later. With staggering swiftness, a golfer never widely considered to be the stuff of which multiple major winners are made won three of the things in just over 12 months, elevating him to the same class as Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Hale Irwin, among other illustrious names. When he lifted the vast Wanamaker trophy at Oakland Hills, he had become the first man since Tom Watson in 1983 to win three majors out of six – with the glaring exception of one T Woods.
Ah yes, Tiger. There are still those who feel that Harrington's back-to-back major wins last year should be entered in the history books with an asterisk, because Woods was not playing. But that doesn't take account of Tiger's presence at Carnoustie, where he tied for 12th. Also, of all the men partnered with Woods five times or more in tournaments, only one of them has outscored him, with a 68.83 average compared with 69.50. And that man is 37-year-old Harrington, the youngest of five brothers, whose late father was an officer in the Garda. It takes more than the world's greatest golfer to intimidate him.
As for the prospect of three Opens in a row, not even Woods has managed that. But Harrington's fierce ambition is tempered with realism. "I'd rather win two over the next five years than one this year for the three [in a row]," he says. "I know three would be very special and it would be remarkable in terms of it not having been done since Peter Thomson. But there's no point in me focusing on that. If it happens, I'll be singing from the rooftops. But I've got a number of Open chances, probably another 10 where I'll be competitive."
The chances of Harrington singing from the rooftops seem comparatively slim, since his form in recent months has been rotten. And not even the dreadful weather suited him at last month's US Open, where he missed the cut by a distance with a pair of grisly 76s. Is he, ever prone to introspection, concerned that the swing, to which he made some adjustments at the start of the year, might not be quite right?
"At the moment, I'm in the process of fixing something," he concedes. "Bob Torrance [his coach] has come over and I've been doing a good bit more work these past couple of weeks. I just need to fix a little bit of my backswing in order to benefit from what I changed during the winter."
There are Formula One engines retuned with less attention to detail than Harrington, the trained chartered accountant, gives his swing. And he thinks about his career development in the same forensic way, challenging the perception that his success has been sudden. "If you actually graph [my career] out over a period of time, it's reasonably smooth improvement going along. You go and win a major on a Sunday, on the Sunday evening, everybody thinks you're a major winner, but you're surely not a better golfer than you were the previous Monday when you didn't have a major, say."
In other words, the three majors merely represent the culmination of a steady climb to the summit. As for the question of whether he can stay there, Harrington believes – with not a jot of arrogance, I should add – that he has reached the stage at which majors are actually easier for him to win than regular tournaments.
"At a regular tournament, if you're not three or four under par after nine holes, you're feeling like you're on the back foot. Whereas at a major, one of the hardest things is you actually want to pace yourself during the week. You want to be in the tournament all the way through, constantly knowing that if you can keep within touch, you can get in contention. It can come down to just playing really good golf for nine holes. As long as you've done nicely for the first 63 holes, as long as you've held your head, held your patience for those 63 holes, you are in position. I feel a lot more comfortable in that situation.
"The best way I can describe it is that playing in a regular event can be like a 100-metre sprint. Playing a major is more like a marathon. You could turn up at a major, and [even] if you've shot a decent first round, you could be six shots behind and yet not even need to consider the guy who is leading the tournament. If you shot 70 on a lot of the major golf courses, and somebody shot 64, for example, it wouldn't bother you at all. You're thinking, 'Well, he's going to come back'."
And what of this particular golf course? Does Turnberry suit his game?
"Assuming the weather is good I think it is a golf course that most players would like. There's a number of dog-legs and you're going to have to be able to move the ball into the wind at times, because that wind will be across those dog-legs. I think the ability to shape the ball off the tee will be a big thing."
Which brings us to the man who has more ability in more departments than anyone else, and Harrington acknowledges the enduring supremacy of Woods. "Tiger is probably the only player in the game who can turn up at a major knowing that if he plays his [best] golf, he can win. Most other players have to turn up at a major, concentrate on playing their golf, and then get in the mix and see if they can win."
Does he think Tiger will overtake Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors? "I do believe that. That's a record, and they are there to be beaten. [But] Jack Nicklaus would beat his own record if he started out now, because he would find a way of doing it. Each generation produces somebody who is most likely to beat whatever record is there. Jack did it in his time. Tiger is going to do it in his time. We'll never know who is the best. All I know is that if Tiger beats Jack Nicklaus's record, somebody will beat [Tiger] in time."
Maybe it will be someone from the next generation of the Harrington family. His younger son Ciaran, at all of 18 months old, is already dragging his dad out to the practice range whenever possible, and family life continues as normally as it can in a house with two replica Claret Jugs on a table in the kitchen and the Wanamaker Trophy in the hall. For that, Harrington credits his wife of 12 years, Caroline.
"My wife manages a very good household, and is determined to keep many of the pressures and stress of a normal working family away from my golf. In terms of running the house, there is no doubt it's run to ensure that I play good golf. We fly with Marquis Jets [a fractional share private jet company] as a family to make sure that we don't have the stress of going through airports and things like that. There's a huge focus on making sure that the kids are happy and making sure I'm happy." A chuckle, from Ireland's greatest ever sportsman (a title conferred on him by Brian O'Driscoll, no less). "Maybe I'm the third child in this family," he says.
Triple crowns: The man who won three in a row – and those who have come close but failed
Who was Peter Thomson
The Australian's achievement in winning three Opens in succession from 1954-56 (and, indeed, in coming second in 1957 and winning again in 1958) was initially dismissed by cynics who pointed out that the top American pros did not bother making the trip across the Atlantic in that era. But then, in 1965 at Birkdale, Thomson silenced them all by winning his fifth Claret Jug against a field including Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. "Thomson was the best I have ever seen with a small ball on a links course," said Gary Player and few would or could argue with the South African. Thomson moved to America as a 21-year-old but soon came to Europe where he became a much-loved, if slightly acerbic, character. He won only once on the PGA Tour but with 26 victories in Europe and 34 in Australasia, Thomson proved he was so much more than just a one-trick pony. Nevertheless, he will always be famous for being the only player in the 20th Century to win three Opens in succession (Young Tom Morris, Jamie Anderson and Bob Ferguson all did it in the late 19th Century). Now 79, Thomson, who ran for Australian Parliament in 1982, resides in his home city of Melbourne where he works in the media and designs golf courses.
The hat-trick hunters who have failed to follow Thomson:
Arnold Palmer (1963, Royal Lytham)
Arnold Palmer arrived on the Lancashire coast as the hero of the British galleries, who had watched him prevail in swashbuckling style at Birkdale and Troon. The bookmakers' odds of 2-1 reflected the crowd's unconditional support, but he tied for 23rd, behind New Zealand's Bob Charles, who became the first left-hander to win a major. Palmer was at a loss to explain the absence of his customary flair. "I could feel the fans moaning and groaning, but I just couldn't seem to concentrate," he said. "This happens sometimes and you are not sure why."
Lee Trevino (1973, Royal Troon)
"Someone once said that nobody murders Troon. The way I played this Open they couldn't even arrest me for second degree manslaughter." So said the Tex-Mex after trailing in 13 shots behind Tom Weiskopf in joint 10th place. In truth, despite his odds of 6-1, Trevino was never comfortable on the Ayrshire coast all week, lengthening his shafts as soon as he arrived, realising that he would need a lower trajectory on his shots on the exposed links. His ploy failed and Troon's feared back nine bit hard in a first-round 75 which rendered his challenge all but futile. Having prevailed at Birkdale and Muirfield, golf's great entertainer was destined never to win another Open.
Tom Watson (1984, St Andrews)
Nobody has come closer to emulating Thomson than the then 34-year-old who strode into the Auld Grey Toon not merely chasing a Claret jug three-timer, but also trying to equal Harry Vardon's record of six Open titles. Watson was a 5-1 favourite or so long those odds appeared generous as he kept a nose ahead of Seve Ballesteros. But then, on the infamous Road Hole 17th, Watson played one of the most talked-about shots in Open history, hitting a two-iron over the green, across the road, and into the stone wall. While Watson was taking a bogey, Ballesteros was holing a 15-footer on the 18th. "If there was one shot in my career that I would like to be able to hit over," said Watson in later years, "it would be that two-iron at the Road Hole in 1984."
Tiger Woods (2007, Carnoustie)
Even Thomson himself failed to visualise anything other than yet another piece of Woods history. "I can't see anybody beating him this week," said the Australian. The bookies agreed, installing him as the overwhelming 6-4 favourite and after a first-round 69 the money piled on. But then came the first tee on Friday morning and incredibly, the player who had won at Hoylake the year previous by refusing to use a driver off all but one tee, yanked a play-it-safe iron into the Barry Burn. The ensuing double bogey set him up for a tournament-wrecking 74. Woods trailed home in a tie for 12th. "Perhaps nobody will ever do it again," said Thomson. James Corrigan