No doubting Thomas but Harrington confesses to qualms

by Robert Green

January 10, 2019

It was no surprise earlier this week at Wentworth when Padraig Harrington was revealed as the European Ryder Cup captain for the match at Whistling Straits, Wisconsin, in 2020. The story had already been aired ‘unofficially', with Tiger Woods, for example, saying last month: “Paddy is always well-received in the States… all the guys, on both sides of the Ryder Cup fence, respect him.”

The path to the role became especially clear once Lee Westwood, the other ‘obvious' candidate, made it plain that he would prefer to be considered for the job in Rome in 2022 (for which Woods is the early favourite to be the American skipper). So it is that the 47-year-old Dubliner will attempt to retain the prize that Thomas Bjorn's team regained in Paris last September.

Given that Harrington, who is 47, has won three major championships – one of them, the 2008 USPGA, in America – played on six Ryder Cup teams and been a vice-captain for the previous three matches, no one could dispute that he has the pedigree. What was perhaps the most interesting facet surrounding his appointment was the soul-searching he went through before agreeing to take on the task.

“It's not something that I take on without a certain amount of trepidation,” he admitted. “I really want to be a help. I have to be a part of that team and ensure that I find an edge to make the team perform to the best of their abilities; get the most out of them and hopefully get a win. Having been a player, having won three majors, I've done a lot in my own personal career, but I know taking on the Ryder Cup captaincy is a different thing. It's not just something I walked to and said, ‘Yeah, it's my turn, I should do it'. It's something I did think long and hard about. It really came down to whether I wanted to put what is a successful career on the line. Because you are putting it on the line when you become the Ryder Cup captain. It is a different element to your career. We know a successful captain is great, and a losing captain, you know, it's his fault. I am putting something on the line going out there.”

Last year I spoke to José Maria Olazábal about this. Twice a Masters champion and with a stellar Ryder Cup record, he was the European captain in Chicago in 2012 when the Americans led 10-6 going into the singles. Europe won by a point. I asked Olazábal did he ever think that if Europe had not won, critics would have said his mistakes were to blame? He said: “I don't wake up in the middle of the night thinking about that but, if we had lost that match, my golf career would not feel complete. There would have been something missing, I do know that.”

Harrington seems to feel it's more intense than that. “I will concentrate on what I can control, but, yeah, it does reflect on my career how this goes. I'm aware that I could have passed up on this and just kept on going as a tournament golfer. I am well aware, it's a win or nothing. That's the way it goes. You go out there and win, you're a successful captain. You lose, you're not.”

He saw at first-hand the work of a different Irish captain, Paul McGinley, who led the Europeans to success at Gleneagles in 2014. “Paul took it to a new level, no doubt about that, in pre-match organisation. He certainly put more into that two years before the match than anybody else had done before, and that's a requirement now. It's a job – and I blame McGinley, not thank him! – that you have to be committed to. I don't think I ever thought I wasn't going to do it, but I wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. I wanted to be clear that I didn't just walk into it because it was the next thing to do in my career.”

I'm sure that's true. It takes a deep sense of candour to open up about even having reservations of that extent about accepting one of the most prestigious offices in professional golf. It also somehow sounds more authentic than a glib line about having “achieved a lifetime's ambition”. And whatever happens to him and his team in Wisconsin, just as Thomas Bjorn and Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) will always have Paris, no one is going to be taking away Padraig's three majors.

And as huge as his appointment is in golfing terms, Harrington has kept some admirable measure of perspective. “I don't want to be a winning captain at all costs,” he said. “But I want to be a winning captain.”

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