'Tiger-like' Harrington concentrates on usurping world No 1

Fresh from another major win, Ireland's 'greatest sportsman' outlines his plan to tackle Woods. James Corrigan reports from Oakland Hills, Michigan
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The Independent Online

When the cheers had eventually subsided, the high-fiving had slapped itself out and Sergio Garcia had gone off to wage his customary war against the fates, little Paddy Harrington looked up to his mother and said, "Does that mean Daddy's won the trophy again?" The lad was spot on, Daddy had just won the trophy again. And again and again and again... In fact, the silverware was dwarfing the Harrington's hotel room when they awoke here yesterday after their second Sunday night of wild celebration in four weeks. The Wanamaker Trophy is roughly four times the size of the Claret Jug that has been lugged around as part of their luggage set for the last two seasons and in terms of estimating what this means for Padraig Harrington – well, his standing in the game has become similarly super-sized.

The rivals he conquered at Sunday's USPGA Championship were even prepared to evoke the "T" word when asked to put his third major victory of the last 13 months into some context. "That was Tiger-like, right there" said Ben Curtis, the American who shared second place with Garcia. "I wouldn't say, 'Watch out Mr Nicklaus, watch out Mr Woods', but he is playing some impressive golf."

Everyone and everything but the daft ranking system agrees that he is now the second best player in the world and thus the professional to provide the biggest threat when you know who returns from knee surgery next year. Yet far from wishing to continue his ferocious haymaking (there are some "ee-jits" out there already seeking to use that as a reason to diminish the staggering achievement of winning half of the last six majors) Harrington is counting down the hours until the Masters showdown. Woods will encounter an entirely different Padraig there.

The Dubliner has undeniably established himself as a major animal who, just like Tiger, seems to come to life at the turn in the final round. While the final two hours at Oakland Hills did not quite match the quality of those at Birkdale, the manner in which he holed putts of 20 feet, 10 feet and 18 feet on the last three holes underlined his hitman instinct in the heat of the hunt.

"I love the idea of the back nine of a major on a Sunday, I love it so much that I'm actually disappointed I'm seven months away from the next major," he said. "And I don't know what I'm going to do."

What he will do is what he has always done – go off to try to improve. Harrington has consistently underrated himself and although he sees this as something of a weakness – "I struggle with confidence and that is a change I do need to make" – it is actually his strength.

It may be an unwitting game-plan but the player who claims "to be better when my back is against the wall" seems to revel in creating a narrative from which he has to recover. Here it was the mental fatigue that after Friday's second round he declared had left him "running on empty" and even late on Sunday night he was insisting he had won despite his form. "I definitely didn't have my golf swing," he said. "My coordination was out all week."

Uncoordinated golfers do not shoot two 66s on one day at Oakland Hills – a feat described by Justin Leonard yesterday as "almost unimaginable" – but, regardless, Harrington will carry that belief on to his next tournament. "Most guys who had won two in a row would be on cloud nine and would play great golf for the next six months," he said. "I will be fighting it the next time I play."

That will be in 10 days in New Jersey for the beginning of the FedEx Series, the play-off system in which the winner collects a near £6m first prize. Thanks to his seeding Harrington will be one of the favourites to secure that pot and so pile the greenback up against the prestige. And so the comparisons with Tiger would keep on coming.

"That's a nice question to be asked," replied Harrington to the inevitable query whether he can now supplant Woods. "It's a good situation that you can ask that. It's funny, I've probably been the leading player in Europe for close to six years, yet I still get asked if I am the leading player in Europe. It is a big step now to move up and start competing on a different level. I've got Phil [Mickelson], I've got Tiger ahead of me. But do I believe I can improve as a player? Yes. There's plenty of my game to improve.

"It is a long way to catch Tiger. But I know that the only way of focusing on doing that is focusing on me." There will be plenty of focus on Harrington, now, particularly in his homeland where yesterday he was hailed by the Republic's Minister of Sport, Martin Cullen, as "clearly Ireland's greatest ever sportsman". Because of the Fedex and then the Ryder Cup, he is not due back in Dublin for five weeks, but a private jet has been offered to return for a "homecoming".

Harrington will likely decline as there is work to do. He acknowledged with a laugh that he is halfway on the road to the "Paddyslam", before making the serious point that a perspective needs to be struck. "I have to get to grips with where I am in the game," he said. The same applies to Garcia, although until he, like Harrington, accepts "responsibility" for his shots and their outcome then it appears doomed to be a futile exercise of personal examination. In a certain respect he can be regarded as having learnt from these bitter experiences, and his reaction to this particular Harrington humbling was so much more magnanimous than the outburst that greeted his Open heartache at Carnoustie last year. Yet again he could not resist taking a swipe at the fickle lady. "There's guys who get a little bit fortunate in majors," said the player confirmed as the best without one.

"They manage to get things going their way. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened to me. That doesn't mean I'm not on the right track. It's just a matter of time."

Milestones on drive to the top

With this win...

* Harrington became the first European to win back-to-back majors and the first golfer to do it since Tiger Woods two years ago.

* Harrington became the first European to win the USPGA Championship since Scotland's Tommy Armour in 1930.

* Harrington became the fourth player to win the Open and the USPGA Championship in the same season after Walter Hagen (1924), Nick Price (1994) and Tiger Woods (twice – 2000 and 2006).

* Harrington became the first Irishman to win an American major and the first European to win an American major since Jose Maria Olazabal (above) at the Masters in 1999.

* Harrington became the fifth active player to win three majors, after Tiger Woods (14), Phil Mickelson (3), Ernie Els (3) and Vijay Singh (3).

* Harrington became the first European resident to win the USPGA. Three former winners – Armour, Jock Hutchinson and Jim Barnes – were born in Europe but were US citizens at the time of their victories.