My father drives me on
Pádraig Harrington is on a personal mission to raise awareness of oesophageal cancer, writes RONAN McGREEVY
THERE HAS rarely been a more public father-son relationship than that between the golfer Pádraig Harrington and his father Paddy.
Paddy Harrington was a sportsman of some repute himself. He lined out in two All-Ireland football finals for Cork and played golf off a five handicap.
He was one of the founders of the Stackstown Golf Club, the beautifully appointed course in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, where Pádraig learned his trade.
Paddy nurtured his youngest son’s talent, drove him around to tournaments, encouraged him and ensured he had the freedom of the practice range at Stackstown.
On the wall of Harrington’s home is a painting of three generations of the Harrington family, Paddy, Pádraig and Paddy Jr, Pádraig’s son who was born in August 2003.
The flag pin bears the words Elysian Fields, the place in Greek mythology where great and virtuous warriors go after they die.
Paddy Harrington died at 73 of oesophageal cancer, the oesophagus being the tube that leads from the mouth to the stomach.
His death in July 2005 occurred the same week that his son was due to compete in the British Open, in a run of form which included two victories on the PGA tour.
Paddy never lived to see to his son represent Europe in the 2006 Ryder Cup victory at the K Club, or win the British Open in 2007. He never saw him retain the Open in 2008 and win another major title, the US PGA, a few weeks later.
He would have been proud to know the Irish public voted Harrington the greatest Irish sportsman of all time two years ago.
Harrington says simply that his father would have liked his successes “but it was not everything to him”. Indeed, his father, as he was dying, insisted that his funeral mass make no reference to sport.
Paddy Harrington lost two All-Ireland finals and never expressed a regret about it. Being a good winner was good, being a good loser was just as important.
Harrington is known not just for his prowess on the course, but for his famously equitable temper which has served him so well in the high-pressure world of top class golf.
“So far in my golf career, if I was to stop now, the thing that I would take the most pride in is that I’ve never thrown a golf club and I’ve never thrown a ball away in the water in anger. I pride myself on not doing petulant things. That is in honour of my dad,” Harrington says.
“I was always aware that I had to pay attention to the etiquette of the game. It is one of the things that I can carry on in my memory of my dad.”
His father was first diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in July 2002. Until that point, Paddy Harrington was a strapping ex-garda who never drank and only smoked an occasional pipe. “He was a big strong active person,” Harrington recalls.
His only health symptom was reflux and heartburn. “When I was young, my dad would run out of antacid tables and he would send me down to the shop to get some for him. Dad was eating packets of those from as early as I can remember.”
None of the Harringtons knew at the time, because most people did not know (and still don’t), that people with persistent heartburn and reflux are at a high risk of developing oesophageal cancer.
“Dad was old school. If it wasn’t killing him, why would you go to the doctor?
“He was a typical Irish man. ‘I’m okay. It is fine, I can handle this.’ ”
Initially Paddy underwent an operation in October 2002 and it was a success. He gained a stone in weight and looked to have beaten the cancer, but it returned three years later.
“In many ways, the first part of it, though it was difficult, wasn’t so bad. When it came back, that’s the bigger shock. My father spent years fighting it, it was only at the very end that it got the better of him,” says Harrington.
All the time while his father was ill, Harrington had to face questions as to how he was coping. When his father was dying, every tournament was prefaced by speculation as to whether he was going to turn up or not. When he returned to golf after his father’s death, the questions continued.
“I found it very difficult to keep explaining myself. I just wasn’t capable of doing that,” he says.
“Now, looking back, and with experience of it, I believe that the grieving process is very personal to everybody. It is what it is.
“There is nobody going around saying, you should be capable of doing X. There are no limits on it. It is personal to everybody, not that you are grieving more or less than anybody else.”
Harrington is convinced that, had he and his family known that persistent reflux was a symptom of oesophageal cancer, his father would still be around.
The cancer is eminently curable, but only if caught early.
“I know it would have saved my dad’s life. It is a tough thing to realise. If we knew a bit more, and if my dad was a bit more pro-active, it would not have happened. That’s why I’m involved in oesophageal cancer awareness. The symptoms are pretty evident, people just need to know what they are.”
Harrington says that since his father’s first illness, he has noticed that antacid tablets in the United States contain disclaimers that if the symptoms persist they should see their doctors as it might be indicative of something more serious.
He believes such a simple measure could be effective here, where 400 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer every year.
“In my dad’s eyes it would make up for the fact that we missed it with him. If my dad’s passing causes me to bring awareness and that saves lives, in the greater scheme of things, that it is a good thing.”