Choking is one of those nasty words in sport often associated with clutching defeat from the jaws of victory. As an accusation it strikes at the very heart of a competitor. It is not a charge that can be pressed lightly and to have suggested Padraig Harrington did just that against Ian Woosnam here last year in the final of the World Match Play Championship would be harsh.
For a start it would disregard the fine play by Woosnam as he recovered from being three down after 21 holes to win 2 and 1. But not even Harrington could overlook the fact that it was his own mistakes which initially caused a swing in momentum that the Welshman so brilliantly capitalised on to win the title for the third time and in a third different decade.
Harrington has had to get used to the feeling of finishing runner-up. During the 31-year-old's career he has experienced it almost 20 times. On occasions a second place can be put down to good play in order to finish as high as possible. But there have been times when a chance has eluded him and immediately after his match against Woosnam, Harrington was as depressed over the result of a golf tournament as the usually cheerful Dubliner has ever been.
The standard of play, especially in the morning, was exceptional. Woosnam equalled his own record for the event with seven birdies in a row on the front nine. Harrington equalled the best round the competition had ever seen with a 61, 11 under par to turn a three-down deficit at the turn to a two-up advantage at lunch.
It was only later in the afternoon that Harrington felt his game faltered, something that might be understandable given the tiring nature of a tournament in which he had already beaten Nick Faldo, Darren Clarke and Sam Torrance in 36-hole matches. On the other hand, the then 43-year-old Woosnam had also played his way through from the first round, becoming the first player to win twice without being among the leading seeds, who do not tee up here until Friday.
"It wasn't so much that I lost," Harrington said to explain his disillusionment that night, "rather that at the time I did not know why I had lost." For a player who thinks long and hard about all aspects of his game and preparation this was the unsettling part.
"I was devastated and thinking, 'Did I choke?' That's what was really on my mind. You are always scared that that is what has happened. It's a horrible feeling that people think you have choked. It feels as if people are pointing their finger at you and sniggering."
But after Harrington thought about the day, he realised that he simply had not eaten enough. Seve Ballesteros, in a long ago World Match Play final, once choked on a banana and disturbed a shot by Nick Price. Seve might have acquired a cough on the big occasion and been adept at the acceptable side of gamesmanship, but that was a complete mistake.
Harrington decided he had choked because he had not been eating enough bananas. "I had got lazy. In the afternoon I did not eat anything. I was running on empty and when that happens your mind runs riot and you end up hitting all sorts of shots."
Only three weeks after the World Match Play loss, Harrington won the Volvo Masters, one of the biggest tournaments on the circuit but his last chance for a first victory of the season. This year had again been barren until he won the Dunhill Links Championship two weeks ago at St Andrews. His brave putts at the 72nd and 74th holes first got him in to a play-off and then saw him victorious against Eduardo Romero.
It came only a week after being part of the winning European Ryder Cup team and although his celebrations for once had not been teetotal the Irishman showed Langer-like dedication and determination in getting down to the job in hand after such a momentous high.
The win put Harrington sixth in the world, his highest-ever ranking. Tomorrow he plays the Canadian Mike Weir with Sergio Garcia waiting in the second round.
"When I was a kid I would go home to my dad and ask him why I had lost a match when I had played the better golf. He would say that it was to do with experience but that did not help much – how do you get experience. Well, now it's on the other foot. I have that experience now.
"Figuring out I had lost concentration at Wentworth was an important lesson. At the Volvo Masters, for once it was me who did something spectacular to beat someone else. You need that bit of reassurance that you are going in the right direction.
"It is nice when people say you have handled the pressure well. Winning the Ryder Cup and then at the Dunhill was great. I've really enjoyed the feeling because it does not happen very often. I did swan around a bit at home." But no more. There is work to be done again.
"When you relax and forget about something in golf, it comes back to bite you. You have to keep applying yourself."
WORLD MATCH PLAY CHAMPIONSHIP (Wentworth): Tomorrow's first round (seeds denoted by number): 0900 & 1315: M Campbell (NZ, 8) v N Faldo (GB). Winner to play I Woosnam (GB, 1). 0915 & 1330: P Harrington (Irl, 5) v M Weir (Can`. Winner to play S Garcia (Sp, 4). 0930 & 1345: V Singh (Fiji, 6) v J Rose (GB). Winner to play R Goosen (SA, 3). 0945 & 1400: C Montgomerie (GB, 7) v F Funk (US). Winner to play E Els (SA, 2).
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