It has never been wise to mistake the eccentric side of Pádraig Harrington for an overarching trait. Harrington is far more intelligent, sagacious and tough than is apparent when he displays a quirky side. A career that has delivered three major championships among more than 30 professional victories means Harrington is widely regarded as the Republic of Ireland’s greatest sportsman. This is not the domain of a clown.
There is now vulnerability. The 50-year-old Harrington will lead Europe into next weekend’s Ryder Cup with the sense – and fear – that his reputation is on the line. “There are very few things that can affect my golfing legacy,” he explains. “If I win another tournament, it doesn’t make much difference. It’s even questionable whether winning another major would. The Ryder Cup impacts my legacy. My ego is attached to my golf and there is no question the Ryder Cup will have an effect on that. Being a losing captain could definitely have an effect on who I feel I am. That’s something that would have to be dealt with.
“I want to make sure everybody has a great experience where these are the best days of their lives. I could go through all those cliches. But ultimately I want to win. I can control being a good captain without necessarily controlling the result.”
This seems dispiriting. Yet there is logic, as ever, behind Harrington’s point. His standing pre-captaincy is loftier than Thomas Bjørn, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley, his immediate predecessors. Harrington does have plenty to lose. Discussion of Nick Faldo’s illustrious on-course achievement is typically afforded the asterisk of disastrous 2008 Ryder Cup captaincy. Harrington played in that team.
“I’ll give Nick an out here because I could have fallen into this trap,” says Harrington. “He believed – and this suited me, by the way – that everybody played golf like he did. He never needed anybody or anything else when playing a Ryder Cup. He just focused on getting his game ready. At that Ryder Cup, he assumed that’s how we all thought. Getting himself individually ready was best for Nick. We have figured out since then that not everybody plays that way. You can’t make the mistake of believing everybody thinks like you.
“I didn’t want to take this job because it was my turn or my right. There is a lot of pressure on this for me because it’s a one and done. I don’t have a few goes.
“A successful team is a successful captain. A losing team is a failed captain. It is unfair but that’s the way it is. I know that if we don’t win, people will need to put two and two together and get five. If we win, they’ll need to find a reason why I was great.” And, to Harrington, he is in the underdog’s seat. “If this was run by computer, the US are winning.”
There have already been dissenting voices. That Harrington overlooked Justin Rose for a wildcard led to sniping the Irishman was prepared for. There were brief discussions about a vice-captain’s role for Rose, which was mutually decided as unwise. “I knew and he knew that he would be too close to the action.” Rose will look on from afar after Sergio García, Ian Poulter and Shane Lowry received Harrington’s call.
“It would have been very easy to go with him, no doubt,” Harrington says. “It’s not like you can say Justin Rose isn’t as good as the three picks. There was plenty of reason to have him, I’d be delighted to have him in the team. It just goes to show how strong I think my picks are that I didn’t pick him.
“I went with what the stats were saying long-term, they were all pushing for the three lads. Justin didn’t do enough to completely change that. It shouldn’t be any slight on his golf or Ryder Cup record.” Still, as Harrington well knows, it will be a stick to whack him with if the US prevail.
So what kind of captain will Harrington be? Rabble rousing is not his style. Nor, he is adamant, is allowing a 12-man team to lose sight of who they individually are. “I have been a competitive player all my life,” Harrington says. “I have done well. Now, I have to be careful how I come across with my players; they need the sense that I believe in them. They can’t walk out there looking at me as a player or an ex-player. That’s a line you have to work very hard on, to not be an intimidating presence. I want it to be: ‘Wow, here is this guy who has done what he has done in golf who believes in me.’ And I really do believe in them. I think I have a fabulous team.”
Exhibit A, Rory McIlroy. More than seven years have now passed since McIlroy won his last major but his captain treats the wait with a shrug. “That’s majors,” Harrington says. “If we go outside of them, his golf has been consistently brilliant. Nobody wants to go up against Rory McIlroy, playing well, in match play, on this style of course. There was nothing I asked during the last year that he wasn’t out there as the first one doing. He is no longer the young kid. He will play a pivotal role on and off the course.”
In 1999, Harrington was not even on nodding terms with most of the US players he was due to face upon Ryder Cup debut. An encounter with the late Payne Stewart at a pre-event function altered Harrington’s perspective forever. “I knew he was a patriot and ultra competitive,” Harrington says. “He totally convinced me that he wanted to beat me by me playing well. Up until then, I wouldn’t have cared how badly the other guy played. I knew Payne wanted to beat me and win but he was genuinely hoping we had the greatest match ever. That’s a hard place for a sportsman to go, to wish his playing partner all the best.”
When posed about what the concept of “Europe” actually means to him, Harrington takes a sip of tea and delivers a wide grin. “I’d love to have a political discussion with you over dinner. I’m a good one for opinions and whatever side you take, I’ll take the other just for the fun of it.”
The serious point follows. “We are playing for the European Tour,” says Harrington. “This is what Seve started. Back in the 80 s great players, the best in the world, played in Europe. Seve, Woosie, Langer, Lyle. Greg Norman played in Europe. They didn’t have the access to the US and the Ryder Cup was Seve’s way of saying: ‘We are as good as the US Tour. We deserve better world ranking points, we deserve better access to events.’
“We still have that point to prove. We have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, it carries over from Seve’s days. There is no doubt the Presidents Cup is too familiar. For now, we are still a Ryder Cup. Bernd Wiesberger is a European-based player and he played his way into the team. The morale that generates from the ground up in Europe is so important.”
Twenty years ago, Harrington walked into a locker room at Bellerive Country Club amid murmurs of a huge incident in New York. “I put my golf shoes on and half an hour later, the world stopped. For days,” he recalls. The Ryder Cup was postponed until 2002. There are some sad parallels, then, to now; the event was shuffled back 12 months as the pandemic took hold. Harrington’s wife and sons will be in Wisconsin but they constitute his entire contingent.
“I was hoping – and just shows my own naivety – the Ryder Cup would mark the end of Covid, that it would be a mass celebration,” he adds. “Clearly it hasn’t gone away.
“I’m the captain, this is my last go at a Ryder Cup and I can’t have all my friends and family there. That’s from a selfish point of view but my team are all the same. When I was appointed, a part of it was, for the people who have supported me over 25 years of a pro career, come to the Ryder Cup and celebrate with me. We can’t do it. I feel for the players who are in the same boat. I wish it was a line in the sand to say: ‘This is the end of Covid.’ We think we are important but we aren’t really.” Which won’t stop the eyes of the sporting world falling on Harrington next weekend. He appreciates just how high the stakes are.