A missed cut at the 2006 Open was irrelevant to Pádraig Harrington by the time he lifted the Claret Jug the following two years. This has not prevented the retention of memories from the toasted Royal Liverpool of 17 years ago. A European heatwave reduced the Open to dust.
“It freaked me out and having been over to see it again, I am in discussions with my club manufacturer,” he says. “I waggle quite aggressively and it was so burnt in 2006 that when I put the club on the ground, it kept slipping. I was afraid of hitting the ball when addressing it. It was uncomfortable. So I have been practising leaving my club two to three inches behind the ball and I have been checking with the guys if there is anything to put on the sole of my club to make it less slippy.” Harrington leaves nothing to chance.
The Irishman lasted 36 holes again when the Open returned to Hoylake in 2014. “I am hoping that a sample size of two isn’t important,” he says. “I like the course. I just haven’t played well on it.”
The venue – from Thursday, Royal Liverpool again – should not alter the fact that Harrington could well win the 151st Open. Having been rejuvenated on the Champions Tour for over 50s in the United States, he is playing some of the finest golf of a celebrated career. A few weeks short of his 52nd birthday, Harrington’s level of competitive spirit remains incredible.
“I was burnt out by 2016,” he says. “I have found a new lease of life. I was trying to do in 2014, 2015 exactly what I was doing in 2007, 2008. I just couldn’t keep up that pace. I had to get up three and a half hours before a 7.30am tee time. I do none of that now. Back in the day if someone said we were going for dinner at eight, I would say: ‘I have to go to the gym, get some physio, talk to my psychologist. I won’t make it.’ Now? ‘That’s great. I’ll make plans accordingly.’ I have relaxed.”
But sufficiently to the point of claiming a third Claret Jug? “I am physically capable,” he says. “I have gotten a lot better mentally over the last couple of years because of the Champions Tour.
“It all comes down to my discipline between now and the Open. I know what my preparation should be but I get drawn into wanting more.
“When I was winning my majors, I did no technical practice for three weeks and it took me that time to shut my brain down. I want my mental game to be better. My physical game is good enough. If I prepare properly, I believe. If I don’t prepare properly, I’m only paying lip service to it.
“This is a constant fight in golf. If you truly believe you are good enough and your game is good enough, you are not looking over your shoulder at other players. You are really focused. If you think: ‘I need to get lucky, I need to putt well, I need the right breaks,’ then you don’t really believe. You are kind of hoping.
“On the course you need dependability. Tiger said it: ‘If you think you can win with your B game, your A game turns up. If you think you need your A game, your B game turns up.’ If I turn up at the Open thinking I need to hole some putts, that I can’t afford to miss any eight-footers, all I’m doing is heaping pressure on myself from the start.”
Harrington has been there, seen it, done it and worn every T-shirt associated with the psychology of his sport. His three major wins came in 2007 and 2008; he believes certain players have a window where they feel indestructible. “I thought I was going to be the first one to not do this,” he says. “You keep doing all the good stuff and it just stops working. It stopped working for me when Rory McIlroy turned up.
“At the 2011 US Open, Adam Scott did an interview on the Wednesday and said: ‘Everyone might as well go home, Pádraig Harrington is winning this week.’ I was playing the best golf of my life. I tie 45th and Rory laps the field. How do you think that makes me feel? I thought I had to fix my swing, my game, to get better. I didn’t really but that’s how you react.”
Harrington would have no fears now over jousting with McIlroy, Jon Rahm or Cameron Smith over the closing stretch at Hoylake. “Yes, but that’s easier because you are in the position,” he says. “With nine holes to go, back to the wall, you are going to play. I believe I’m great mentally in that situation but it’s the 63 holes before because you cannot have that intensity for 72 holes. I cannot rely on those nine holes, three holes, playoff or whatever. You need your head in the game for Thursday morning.”
Whether McIlroy can rediscover earlier magic will prove a key Open theme. It was at this course nine years ago that he won the last of his four majors. The wait for No 5 has at times felt interminable. “Rory stood on the tee and everyone was afraid of him,” Harrington says. “Rory was afraid of nobody. There’s no doubt Rory can turn up at any tournament, any major and win or win comfortably. But he is definitely aware of other people in the tournament. He knows he has to play great to win.”
Harrington’s captaincy of the 2021 European Ryder Cup team – delayed from 2020 – proved a wounding experience. The United States triumphed and comfortably at Whistling Straits. “I know this sounds incredibly selfish but I curse Covid,” he says. “That year cost Europe so badly. It was hard on my team and good for the US team. There’s consolation that everyone seemed to enjoy the experience but you are judged on results.”
Laughter follows. Harrington – world ranking No 192 – had a strong enough reputation to choose whether he captained Europe at home or in the US. “It was sheer arrogance thinking I could take on an away match. I have lived my life that way, thinking I am bulletproof. But I sit down sometimes and think: ‘What an idiot.’ It was my own hubris.”
This particular story may have another chapter. Harrington set himself the goal of competing at the Scottish Open and on Merseyside before deciding whether to make a proper tilt at playing in this year’s match with the US.
“If I get into contention I will change my plans and play a schedule in Europe,” he says. “It is very important for any player to make that kind of effort for the team. The Champions Tour is great but we don’t know if I am a serious golfer or not. I have to perform in regular events. Nobody is picking a Ryder Cup player based on the Champions Tour. It has to be against my peers. I can push my way in by playing well.”
Only a fool would bet against it.