Late; but nearly there.
Pádraig Harrington's clock to the Ryder Cup started ticking on January 8th 2019, a day when he – hand-in-hand with his wife, Caroline – slipped into the ballroom of the Wentworth Club outside London to be confirmed as Europe's captain.
Those first steps as the main man were orchestrated to suit the television mandarins who wanted their pound of flesh in an unveiling that the dogs on the street knew was coming but he played the part to a tee.
On that day of hope, unaware of the pandemic that nobody knew lay ahead, a bearded Harrington had remarked: “It [the captaincy] is something that you’d better embrace because, you know, it will have that asterisk if you don’t win. I know it’s tough to win in the States but I strongly looked at the fact we were going to a golf course that is at least European-style. I want to be a winning captain. I don’t want to be a winning captain at all costs, but I want to be a winning captain.”
That winning mentality had been bred into him as the youngest of five brothers, whether it was playing marbles on the Rathfarnham footpaths or on the GAA pitch through his youth but primarily on the golf course where the Dubliner's combative streak – often portrayed to the outside world through a steely stare – took him to three Major championship titles, a World Cup and four winning appearances in his six Ryder Cup appearances.
Harrington’s coronation as Europe’s captain was performed with theatrical fanfare but the journey from then to now proved different to what many past captains experienced.
Of them, perhaps Sam Torrance might know, after the 2001 match at the Belfry was deferred a year due to 9/11. Through it all, having suffered his own Covid-19 infection in the midst of the pandemic, Harrington – and his 12 men and his five vice-captains – stand ready and prepared.
Where the past weeks and months had different possibilities and probabilities for pairings – for foursomes and fourballs – swirling through his head and in talking with his backroom team, the final confirmation of those who qualified automatically and those provided a ‘wild card’ pick has meant the past few days have delivered greater clarity as the match edges towards a start.
“Because I have 12 players now, it’s a lot clearer, a lot easier to work with,” says Harrington.
Whatever permutations he has settled on are staying close to his chest, though. No point navigating a route through all of the unsettled qualifying period to hand the code to Steve Stricker, is there?
“I know my job as captain is getting that balance right on Friday and Saturday with the foursomes and fourballs, setting ourselves up to be in a nice place to go into the singles. And that’s really the captain’s job, to get those partnerships right, to get everybody in the right frame of mind to get yourself poised to go into the singles. Really, the big battle in the Ryder Cup is to try and maintain the play and confidence of your team so that they’re ready fresh for the singles,” he says.
So, what is entailed in actually deciding on pairings in a team drawn from so many nationalities – English, Spanish, Irish, Norwegian, Austrian? Is it statistics? Psychometrics? Gut, or intuition? Or more? More, as it happens.
As Harrington explains, “Clearly, statistics are there. They’re kind of used as a back-up. There’s intuition. Who the players want to play with, and who they don’t want to play with. Three’s past performances. Experience. Who wants to be lifted? Who wants to be calmed down? Are there like personalities? The type of game [they play]. Playing a different golf ball. Who hits off the first and second tee box? That comes into it. There’s so many combinations, so we have to put them all together and ultimately intuition is the one that gels it together.”
He adds: “Me and the vice captains put it together. We do check that we’re not doing something silly in terms of the personalities or in terms of the of the stats, but outside of that it’s really which guys look right and work well together, want to play together, and are good combination together . . . there’s lots and lots of things that go into it but the stats will be used to rubber-stamp that you’re not far away with the partnerships. Ultimately, the vice captains and myself come up with those partnerships.”
So, what of Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry playing foursomes or fourballs together?
Again, the cards are kept close to his chest. There’s a photo doing the rounds on social media of late of the pair at the European Amateur Team Championship in 2007. Ireland won. Golf played with deadly innocence.
Harrington isn’t falling for it.
“I’m in no way nostalgic. If it’s the right pairing, it will be played. Nothing outside of that. I don’t go for that sort of stuff. Do they want to play together? Do they feel it would be a good partnership? But I’m not putting them out together based on a picture in 2007. You’ve got to be realistic about these things. They’re hard decisions. We’ve seen mistakes like that made in the past.
“Just because they’re from the same country doesn’t mean they have the same games, personalities! All I’m saying is, if it does happen, and there’s a strong possibility that it could, it’s not based on the fact there’s a picture of the lads from 2007.”
Certainly, in terms of his own Ryder Cup experience, Harrington has a bank of knowledge. As a player in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010, he has played under six different captains – Mark James, Sam Torrance, Bernhard Langer, Ian Woosnam, Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie – with their different styles and personalities.
"One size does not fit all," acknowledges Harrington, who makes the observation that his own experience under Mark James at Brookline in 1999 was a good one (even in that dramatic defeat after Justin Leonard sank an outrageously long putt) compared to others on that team. Andrew Coltart, for instances, was left unused until the Sunday singles when he was thrown in against Tiger Woods. That year, Harrington was one of seven rookies on the European team.
He recalls: “I had a fantastic Ryder Cup [in 1999]. Mark James was brilliant with me. Clearly there were mistakes made and other players will tell you it was a terrible week.
"But, you know, '99 showed how much they [the Americans] cared about winning the Ryder Cup. The celebration [after Leonard's putt], it got out of hand but, to us in Europe, we actually pushed (them) into a corner and that was the result of it. It just says how big and important the Ryder Cup is and the part Europe played in it to get to get it to that level. It is one of the biggest sporting occasions in the world. It's certainly the biggest in golf and there's sure to be drama."
As for leaving one of his 12 men unused through two days of foursomes and fourballs, four sessions in all, Harrington replies: “It would be incredibly strange for everybody not to play the first day. So yes, my intention is everybody plays the first day. I think that is standard practice now . . . it would only not happen if there was extraordinary circumstances.”
Pádraig Harrington’s Ryder Cup playbook
Foursomes: with Miguel Angel Jimenez halved with Davis Love III/Payne Stewart
Foursomes: with Jimenez lost to Tiger Woods/Steve Pate 1 hole
Singles: beat Mark O’Meara 1 hole
USA 14.5 Europe 13.5
Fourball: with Niclas Fasth lost to Phil Mickelson/David Toms 1 hole
Foursomes: with Paul McGinley lost to Stewart Cink/Jim Furyk 3&2
Fourball: with Colin Montgomerie beat Mickelson/Toms 2&1
Singles: beat Mark Calcavecchia 5&4
Europe 15.5 USA 12.5
Fourball: with Colin Montgomerie beat Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson 2&1
Foursomes: with Montgomerie beat Davis Love III/Fred Funk 4&2
Fourball: with Montgomerie lost to Stewart Cink/Love III 3&2
Foursomes: with Paul McGinley beat Love III/Woods 4&3
Singles: beat Jay Haas 1 hole
Europe 18.5 USA 9.5
The K Club
Fourball: with Colin Montgomerie lost to Tiger Woods/Jim Furyk 1 hole
Foursomes: with Paul McGinley halved with Chad Campbell/Zach Johnson
Fourball: with Henrik Stenson lost to Scott Verplank/Johnson 2&1
Foursomes: with McGinley lost to Furyk/Woods 3&2
Singles: lost to Verplank 4&3
Europe: 18.5 USA 9.5
Foursomes: with Robert Karlsson halved with Phil Mickelson/Anthony Kim
Fourballs: with Graeme McDowell lost to Mickelson/Kim 2 holes
Foursomes: with Karlsson lost to Jim Furyk/Kenny Perry 3&1
Singles: lost to Chad Campbell 2&1
USA 16.5 Europe 11.5
Fourball: with Luke Donald lost to Bubba Watson/Jeff Overton 3&2
Foursomes: with Ross Fisher beat Phil Mickelson/Dustin Johnson 3&2
Fourball: with Fisher beat Jim Furyk/D Johnson 2&1
Singles: lost to Zach Johnson 3&2
Europe 14.5 USA 13.5