There is a story Pádraig Harirngton likes to retell, which more than anything relays how far he has come in life. It was of a phone call he made from South Africa – back in his fledgling professional career in 1996 – and his mother, Breda, was on the other end of the conversation.
Harrington had been playing a Challenge Tour event in Kenya when he got a late invitation to play in the FNB Players Championship at Durban Country Club in South Africa. On the way from Kenya to Durban, he got sick. “I was badly dehydrated. I just shivered my way through the night.”
Anyway, the young Dubliner got on with things. He played his golf, survived all four rounds and made his first payday as a professional golfer. Harrington finished tied-49th and earned a cheque for £1,460. It was then that he called home. The gist of the conversation was about money. “They’re just giving this money away,” he told her.
Within 10 weeks, Harrington won his first professional title – the Spanish Open – and, in many ways, he was off and running. Not that he could ever have envisaged back down the journey his career would take him.
As he put it, “I decided to turn pro because the guys I was able to beat as an amateur were turning pro, not because I thought I was good enough. I thought I would have a great life. And if I did well, maybe I’d make a comfortable living on the tour. The idea was to turn pro, have a couple of years on tour if I could, learn the ropes and see what I needed to do to improve.”
When he won the Spanish Open in that rookie season, it all changed. “I started so well I just kept my head down and ran with it. I couldn’t really believe how well I did. It was fairytale stuff.”
Harrington’s discipline, earning him the reputation as the hardest working player on tour, almost always the last to leave the practice range, stood him well. In his career, he has won 31 professional tournaments all around the world and, while he has played in six Ryder Cups and also won a World Cup in partnership with Paul McGinley, Harrington’s defining moments came in the Majors.
It was on leaving the US Open at Congressional in 1997 that Harrington realised his shortcomings in the Majors. “It was too difficult for me,” he remarked, a time when he started to work with Bob Torrance. The upshot, as we now know, was historic: at Carnoustie in 2007, he ended a 60 years drought since Fred Daly – up to then the only Irish player to win a Major, in 1947 – won the British Open.
On his return to Dublin, there were no ticker-tape parades such as Ben Hogan had enjoyed in New York. Instead, Harrington was hosted by then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at a reception in Leinster House. But that would not be all. He received an honorary doctorate from Maynooth University, and was invited to the White House to visit President Barack Obama.
Harrington, though, would not be satisfied with just one Major. Despite suffering an injury in the build-up, he successfully retained the Claret Jug at Royal Birkdale in 2008 and, almost inconceivably, defied dehydration to win the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills.
From small expectations on his first foray into the pro ranks, Harrington set his own course and found deliverance . . . . time and time again. For the most part, he did it his way.
As the businessman Dermot Desmond, a close friend of the golfer, once put it, “He’s smart enough to get there but stubborn enough to make the journey long.” In a nutshell, that quote captures the essence of Harrington.
Pádraig Harrington fact file
Professional wins: 31 (3 Major championships).
Career earnings: €25.7m (European Tour); $24.7m (PGA Tour).
Ryder Cups played: 6 (1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010).
Ryder Cup matches played: 25.
Points won: 10.5 (singles – won 3, lost 3; foursomes – won 4, lost 4, halved 3; fourballs – won 2, lost 6).
Ryder Cup vice-captaincies: 3 (2014, 2016, 2018).