Padraig Harrington's 2007: 'Before the Open, I kept saying I'd win it. It was like I was trying to tease myself...'

Continuing our series of interviews with key figures of the sporting year, James Corrigan talks to the Irishman who is still coming to terms with his triumph at Carnoustie
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The Independent Online

The agonising began as soon as the ball hit the bottom of the cup. The natural response for any normal golf professional as he watched the putt to win his first major dropping into the hole would be one of sheer elation mixed in with a sense of absolute fulfilment. But Padraig Harrington is no normal golf professional and the 2007 Open Championship was no normal golf tournament.

"I'm telling you, some of my first thoughts were 'have I really won it?', 'what does this all mean?', 'what happens now?' OK, I soon knew the first answer to be a resounding yes. But the other two? Well, let's just say they're a work in progress."

As Harrington said it, he was sitting in his Dublin home where the only works in progress were nappies on, nappies off. On 24 November, his wife, Caroline, gave birth to Ciaran which was, as the sentimentalists among us would have had it, "the perfect end to the perfect year". "Don't go there, you shouldn't associate the two," said Harrington. "You can't go writing that the birth of my second son is the icing on the cake or anything like that. It is the cake and, if anything, in comparison winning a golf event can only ever be the icing." Still, he was prepared to admit that as icing goes, Carnoustie was positively glacial.

The record books have since been updated to show that on Angus's Matterhorn links, Harrington became the first European winner of a major in eight years and the first Irish winner in, gulp, 60. Achievements of that magnitude have a habit of taking a while to sink in and the feeling when talking with Harrington is that the absorption has a little way to go yet. He has, though, reached certainty in one regard. "Nothing, whatsoever, makes me think I was lucky and anyone else was unlucky," he said. "I should have won the Open outright I played the best golf. Many things might have happened out there, but I know what I did. I missed plenty of putts. We could analyse it all day and there's no question that Sergio [Garcia] will forever think he was the unlucky one. But he's not seeing the full picture either. At my end of it I'm very comfortable with it and always will be. Now, if my drive on the 18th in regulation play had made it across the bridge after bouncing on it I would have been the luckiest champion in Open history. But thankfully it didn't, and I got to prove myself in the play-off. So they can't call me that."

Well, no, perhaps not the luckiest, but there will obviously be those naysayers who insist that in plonking another ball in the infamous Barry Burn, Harrington had effectively thrown away the claret jug and, to their cynical minds, did not really deserve to be getting it back no matter how imperious he was in that four-hole shoot-out against Garcia. And even the 36-year-old himself now confesses he believed he had wasted the chance of his, and almost every other golfer's, lifetimes and only recovered his poise in the nick of time. "There were definitely moments after the second shot when I was thinking 'I can't believe I've lost the Open like this, when holding the lead going down the last and not visiting the water once but twice'. I was embarrassed to be honest, about how many people I'd let down and what a mess I'd made of it. For at least 50 yards of that walk up the fairway I was on a spiral downwards. Fortunately, although he felt exactly the same way, Ronan didn't let on."

Ronan is Ronan Flood, the caddie and brother-in-law who is now credited with playing a role as crucial as it was supporting. "You know, there's been times before when I've messed up and Ronan has used that line from Harry Potter 'C'mon don't go getting down on yourself or I'll iron your hands.' But this time he just tried to get me focused. It was a one-way conversation, I must admit. He was saying things like 'one shot at a time', 'we'll see what it all means afterwards', stuff that I've heard many times. Initially I was thinking 'yeah, yeah, yeah,' but eventually he won the battle and by the time I reached the ball I was back in the zone. I can truthfully say I haven't hit an easier shot ever on a golf course than that chip. Saying that, I did go back to thinking when I holed out 'I've lost the Open'. But then my son, Paddy, ran on to the green to meet me and then Sergio bogeyed the last that led to the play-off and then..."

Within an hour or so, Harrington was back on the 18th green in an embrace with Flood; a simple enough image, although as ever with this qualified accountant there was plenty more than met the eye. "That was the funny thing," he said, "It's the strangest time to be sharing a private joke but that's what Ronan and I were doing with that hug. We've always had this thing that the closest we'd ever come to hugging each other after winning tournaments before was a handshake. It never seemed big enough to go for the full hug. But suddenly this time it did and we really went for it. Like I say it was an odd time to be fooling around. But we always knew it would happen some day."

Harrington ducks short of saying he always knew an Open victory would happen some day, although he does claim to have possessed a measure of prescience that week. But only a measure. "I kept saying to people around me that I was convinced I was going to win the Open. It was like I was trying to tease myself, bringing the concept to the forefront of my mind so it wasn't such a lofty one, not so 'out there', if you like. Of course, deep down I didn't know I was going to win the Open. But I did know I couldn't do any more.

"This was maybe the first major in which I felt totally comfortable with where my game was, where my mind was. Many a year's gone by when if you'd told me, 'look there's going to be a rain delay on Thursday so we're going to start on the Friday instead', I'd be like 'that's great, I can do some more practice'.

"As it was, Bob Rotella [the sports psychologist] had to try to stop me from overdoing it. 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. 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."

Conversely, this is where "the fear" came in. "There was a bit of it, yeah, the feeling of where do we go now after the pinnacle, how do we sustain this. When you've won your first major it immediately becomes very evident how many professionals there are walking around who have got the one major to their name. The multiple winners, meanwhile, can be counted on two hands."

So how is he going to ensure he joins the wonders and leaves the one-hits behind? "First of all, what usually happens is that the major winner takes confidence from their win and continues to play well straight afterwards, despite all the demands etc. All that euphoria and adrenalin means they don't necessarily see how much it has taken out of them, the fatigue and all. They basically get burn-out, six months or so down the line. In golf, it's a long road back. Fortunately, I didn't take any confidence whatsoever from winning the Open. I've never been that sort of person. In fact, I played quite average afterwards. So the fatigue hit me pretty soon and I see that as a big plus. I knew very quickly what it had drained out of me and saw the need to recover.

"Secondly, I spoke to several people about it and realised it's the small things that make you win the big things. You have to keep doing them. Michael Campbell [the 2005 US Open champion] rang me a few days after the Open to discuss how to move on. He definitely felt he'd fallen into the trap of getting caught up in doing too much and then, when his form slipped, of starting to question his game. What happens is that your subconscious puts your game on to another level it then has to live up to, when in reality nothing's changed. My game was the same the Monday after the Open as it had been the Monday before. There were just four rounds in between four very important rounds, granted but I wasn't a different player. If I now go out and shoot 73 I can't think 'the Open champion can't shoot 73', because I just bloody well did. It's an area I've worked on with Bob. You've got to ease off yourself to get more out of yourself. In top-class sport it's never lack of effort that does for competitors, but too much."

This wholly uncharacteristic "less is more" philosophy seems to be the most obvious trait Harrington has developed from the experience and it is with this in his armoury that he will radically overhaul his schedule as he goes hunting his second major. Most surprisingly he will be missing the prestigious World Golf Championships CA Championship in Miami in March and swapping it for the decidedly low key New Orleans Classic a week later. Not even Tiger Woods, the unashamed cherry-picker himself, misses WGC events.

"I've never missed one myself," he said. "And I don't do it lightly. But I've always known I play my best golf on the third week of a three-week run and if I played Doral, the Masters would be my fourth week. Everything will be geared towards the majors. I need to take the lessons of my Open win. Then I played the European Open and then the Irish PGA Championship the week before, which was a great help being on links."

Whether it will be possible for Harrington to play in the Irish PGA Championship again is a moot point. His fame in his homeland is now such that his presence at a low-key event could very well carry safety risks. If Harrington was a star before the Open, he is now an entire galaxy. "It broke me into the mainstream over here, so people who had no interest in golf, no interest in sport were watching," he said. "More men cried on that Sunday evening than any other sporting event in Irish history. The traffic stopped on the roads. If you wanted to get anywhere around Dublin on the Sunday evening, you could have got there in no time. Everybody but everybody was in front of a TV. The response has been incredible. But then Ireland's a small country and we hadn't won for so many years. I'm comfortable with it as the fame is all part of being the Open champion."

And then there is the money. Euros, or the lack of them, would never have been a problem for the Harringtons however that July evening had transpired, but now the riches will be untold. As a family, however, they are far from flash, which made Caroline's birthday present to her husband of an Aston Martin seem that much more special. To Harrington it soon became apparent how special. "Yeah, it was a little while after, I was filling it up at a petrol station and this chap pulls up alongside and says, 'Great win in the Open and nice car'. That sealed it for me. When someone feels they can say 'nice car" in the same sentence as congratulating you on winning the Open, then you can be fairly sure of one thing you've got a nice car."