Harrington looking forward to 'defending' at Royal Birkdale

It’s hard to believe that it is a decade since Padraig Harrington’s Major breakthrough at Carnoustie. Harrington’s win was a watershed moment for European and Irish golf as the floodgates opened on the Major drought we’d had since the previous European major win, Paul Lawrie in 1999.
 

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The entire golfing landscape has totally changed since Harrington got his hands on the Claret Jug for the first time but one thing that remains as consistent as ever is the Stackstown man’s appetite for success. This years’ Open is a special one for Harrington as he returns to Royal Birkdale for the first time since defending the Open in 2008. 
 
A spate of recent injuries including a 3 month layoff after having surgery on a trapped nerve in his neck and then his bizarre elbow injury while coaching at a corporate event before the FedEx St Jude Classic on the PGA Tour has meant Harrington has not had the most ideal preparation for his Birkdale return. However, a run of good form in recent events has him upbeat and he certainly believes that he has a chance of contending and winning.
 
Talking to IGM, Harrington recalls how his Royal Birkdale victory in 2008 nearly never happened due to a wrist injury that week.
 
“I had actually considered withdrawing that week”, Harrington recalls. “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I thought about it, but I never considered it on Thursday at all.  I was going to go.  I’ve had a history of niggles in my career and I constantly have shoulder and neck issues.  I’ve always teed up with them and I’ve always known that if you can get a few holes into it, it’s amazing how much adrenaline and the stuff that comes with playing can help ease out a problem.  It’s amazing the amount of times I’ve gone on a golf course with a neck injury and been substantially hindered by it but after six or seven holes, I’d kind of forget about it.  Sometimes it works like that.”
 
“That week at Birkdale I was trying everything to recover from a wrist injury.  I was icing it and getting physio and acupuncture. I had anti-inflammatory tablets, and I had light treatment, ultrasound everything on the wrist to try get it going.  It wasn’t until six holes in on the Thursday morning in Birkdale I knew I was ok. I had hit it left off the tee, and it was really miserable conditions. My ball was in a briar, just a little bit of a scrawny brush.  And I’m looking at it going, do I chip it out, or do I go for it.  And I went for it.  I think I hit a 9-iron out of the lie and I had to hit it hard. I knew that the whole defence of my Open Championship was on this one shot, because literally I had never put my wrist under any stress up on to that point. I hit the shot and there was no jarring, no pain, no nothing, even though the club wrapped around the briars. The sense of relief that went through my body that I didn’t break down in that moment was amazing.  Once I hit that shot, I knew I could play from then on and I was in a great place.” 
 

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The rest and recovery time throughout the early part of the week left the defending champion feeling fresh and it changed how Harrington would prepare for future events.
 
“I feel I was the freshest guy that week.  I remember talking to a friend of mine.  I talked to him a couple of times during the week but I remember him saying to me, actually physically saying it to me on Saturday night,  “You’re in the best place going into Sunday.” “What do you mean?” I asked him.
 
He says, “Well, it’s obviously been a very tough week with the conditions, so a tough week mentally, physically, for everybody.”  And then he says, “You’ve played the least golf of anybody this week, and so you’re going to be the freshest tomorrow.”  Which is a very nice way of putting it. I actually learned from that, trying not to overdo it on practice days and to rest and prepare.”
 
“I would have always looked at somebody like Monty in his career. Monty never practised and I was always jealous of that.  He literally never
hit balls. You had to move away from him on the range because he talked so much.  If he came down and put his basket of balls near me, I’d actually pick mine up and leave.  For his ten minute warmup, nine and a half minutes of that is talking.  He knows it, he’s seen me do it.  I’d just pick up the basket and leave.  I’d have a bit of a chat and then I’d leave.”
 
“But Monty was always very good on a Sunday because he had done so much less than everybody else, and that’s very much the way I was at Birkdale.  Because I had done nothing. In a perfect world, you would do nothing Monday and Tuesday.  You wouldn’t play any golf, but that doesn’t work every week.  It would be nice if I was that sort of guy that didn’t need to do a lot of practise but I always did.   Since Birkdale I have become more relaxed on practice, I don’t play 18 holes of practise on a Tuesday anymore. I do try and do a lot less at a tournament week, because Sunday is probably twice the effort, twice the workload with the pressure and stress than it is on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday.  So you need to be ready for that.  I actually think a lot of my second places early on in my career would have been because I had worn myself out by the time I got to Sunday.”
 
“Feeling fresh is one thing but delivering as defending champion and standing up to the test Birkdale threw at the field that week is another.”
 
“I won in Birkdale from the wrong side of the draw too which was something special to do.  That first morning was certainly some of the toughest conditions I ever played in. I remember in the afternoon I went back to my house after I shot 74, and I was feeling pretty good about myself and I’m wandering around the house trying to avoid watching the golf, because you never want to be watching everybody else play.  But I walked by the TV room and my family were watching it and I just looked in.  At that moment, Adam Scott was hitting an iron onto the par 5 fifteenth for his second shot.  I hit 3 wood to that hole this morning, I nearly kicked the TV, I was so devastated.” He said laughing !
 
“It was a bad break to play early Thursday morning, but I got a massive break as the weather stayed bad for the week in terms of the wind and the conditions.  If you’re on the wrong side of the draw and you shoot a high number the first day and the other guys get away with it and shoot low numbers, it’s very hard to pick that up over the next three days if the conditions are good.  But if the conditions stay difficult all week, which they were at Birkdale, it’s not such an issue.”
 
“So if I got unlucky with the draw the first morning, I got lucky with the fact that the weather stayed difficult all week and certainly played into my hands. It was really windy that week and I remember I didn’t miss a putt from inside four feet for the whole week. The ball was moving around on the greens it was that bad.  If you’re not going to miss those short putts, that really keeps you in the right place and I never lost any momentum for the week. That was killing guys.”
 
Carnoustie in 2007 was a nail-biting finish that saw Harrington grab victory from the jaws of defeat but going back to defend at Royal Birkdale was a different story altogether. Harrington felt he had something to prove.
 
“There’s so many great memories going back to Royal Birkdale” he said.  “I know I had won in Carnoustie the year before but obviously the mess I made of the 72nd hole always left a little something wanting. I always say about my first win, it’s always the most exciting when you win your first major but Birkdale was very satisfying for me.  I was injured going into it but I was one of the best players in the world.  I played great that week.  I swung the club well.  I was in the last group on Sunday and favourite to win and I performed. I played really solid.  There was no drama no mess ups.  It was exactly how you would dream of winning the Open when you’re 15 years of age, it had everything you wanted.”
 
“When you’re dreaming about winning The Open, you don’t dream about taking a double bogey down the last hole.  As much as Carnoustie was exciting, Birkdale was my dream situation and winning a second Open was very satisfying.”
 
Harrington remembers every shot from that Sunday on the Liverpool links but one clearly stands out as one of the best of his career.
 
“Most people would think the shot I hit in the 71st hole was the greatest shot I’ve ever hit, the 5-wood from 274 yards.  Strangely enough, Bob Torrance always said, it’s easy to hit a great shot when you’re feeling good.  It’s really difficult to hit a good shot when you’re feeling bad.  I was feeling great when I hit that 5-wood. I was hitting my favourite club and I just hit it off the tee.  I had hit it on the two holes previous.  I was unbreakable at that very moment.”
 
“For me personally, I go back to Carnoustie, the 72nd hole for the chip shot I hit there as being the greatest shot I’ve ever hit, because clearly I was on a low ebb and I hit a great shot, whereas in Birkdale, I was on a high.” 
 
“To be honest, I was kind of mentally pushed into the shot on 17 a bit because Greg Norman who was playing with me that day was only three shots back. I just felt like something good was going to happen to him.  It was like a fairy tale for him all week.  I had in my head that he’s going to be given this major at the end of his career and everybody will be delighted for him.”
 
“It reminded me of the story in the BMW in Germany one year.  John Daly won the event, he had a perfect week from nowhere.  I think he shot 27 under to my 26, and the amount of people that came up to me and said, “Aren’t you delighted John won this week.” Eh NO, I had just shot 26 under, the lowest score I’ve shot in my life and I lost!”
 
“I was afraid of that story line at Birkdale.  Everybody was buying into the Greg Norman story line on Saturday, and I’m thinking, God, don’t get drawn into this. I just felt he was going to produce something special and I was trying to get away from this big story that Greg Norman was going to win The Open.”
 
“There I was standing on the 71st hole still buying into the thought that something was going to happen for him.  He had played very well all day, and he had hit a great drive down 17.  I was just so afraid of him making eagle that I knew I needed to really still try and push on.  It wasn’t a question of me trying to defend my lead at that stage.  I think I had a two shot lead on Ian Poulter who was in the clubhouse but I was more worried about Greg Norman.” 
 
Talking to Padraig about his Open experience at Birkdale his eyes light up. He will certainly make his way to the first tee this year with a confident stride as he walks in the footsteps of past glory. As we wrap up our chat I ask him how special the walk to that first tee will be and his answer was typical Harrington
 
“I actually remember going to the first tee on Sunday morning in 2008  trying to look brave and puff out the chest. If you remember, on the day I played in a t-shirt but it was a pretty cold and windy day.  It wasn’t a fashion decision, my jumper was actually too small for me.  Every time I moved in it the bottom of my jumper came up and I was wearing a white polo shirt so I keep seeing this bit of white underneath during my swing and I said to Ronan, no, that has to come off and I hadn’t got a spare so I was absolutely freezing,” he said laughing.
 
Even with his injury woes of late, make no mistake, when Harrington tees it up at The Open this year he firmly believes he can add a fourth Major Championship to his trophy cabinet.
 
“Obviously I’ll feel really good about The Open being back at Royal Birkdale because I’ve won there and clearly it suits me.  Clearly links golf suits me so everything about it will be playing into my hands, but I have to find some decent form in the run in to it. It’s a big golf course but I am looking forward to the challenge of it.  Personally I will be hoping for not as tough as it was in 2008, but a good strong weather week would be a good leveller.”
 
This article is from the July edition of Irish Golfer Magazine. To read the complete edition click here