Our Pádraig may be Irish but he's a man apart

 

CADDIE'S ROLE:While well we might revel in the affable Dubliner's success, golf is rarely a team game

WITH LITTLE to celebrate from an Irish point of view in Beijing in the opening week of the Olympics Pádraig Harrington saved our sagging sporting egos by capturing the 90th US PGA Championship in Detroit.

His victory is, of course, seen as something the entire nation can celebrate. The fact is professional golfers represent their countries less than they ever did, with singles stroke play the yardstick for judging how good a golfer is.

The closest the golfer gets to playing for a team (apart from Ryder and Presidents Cup distractions) is by representing his support team of caddie, coach, manager, psychologist and physiotherapist. Aside from the increasingly less popular World Cup of golf they virtually never play for their country anymore unless they are American.

Naturally, due to the egocentric nature of the game professional golfers are islands moving through a sea of other islands; you could call it one big archipelago if you like, particularly in the upper echelons of the game.

With the nation latching on to Pádraig's wonderful achievement of winning not only the British Open but backing it up three weeks later with the US PGA, victory would suggest strongly us Irish should be pushing for golf to be an Olympic sport - and quickly while the world's number three golfer is Irish and at his peak.

As I was listening to the story of the Irish runner Pauline Curley who was extremely happy to finish 63rd in the marathon I was a reminded of a humorous interaction between the former cricketer Geoffrey Boycott and a Swedish golfer who was introducing himself to Boycott on the first tee for a pro-am.

The golfer greeted the cricketer and went on to say he had finished 50th in the European Order of Merit the previous year, in case he hadn't heard of him.

To which the candid batsman replied, "If I finished 50th in anything I wouldn't be telling anyone about it."

The golfer had been proud of his achievement, with his limited talent he had over-achieved. For one of the best batsmen of his day naturally such a lowly status would be an embarrassment, not something to publicise.

Realistically it must be a daunting task for our Olympic minnows to haul themselves to China and into the cauldron of their chosen sport knowing that qualifying for a further stage is probably the best they can do, a medal simply an unrealistic dream.

Therein lies the conundrum for any sports person; where do I belong - or indeed do I belong in the final group on the Sunday of a major or in an Olympic final in the Bird's Nest in Beijing?

It was a position Pádraig found himself in having secured his European Tour Card in 1996 and surprisingly for himself, winning his first event in Madrid later that year. He decided he could become better and made serious changes both to his swing and his whole professional approach, from diet and exercise to the most telling aspect of top golf, the mental game.

Pádraig had finished second too many times it seemed, perhaps he just wasn't a winner - maybe he had reached his level just like the Swedish golfer and it was time to settle for second.

Of course he never thought this. It was simply a learning curve, albeit an agonisingly slow one for Harrington. It seemed to take him longer to feel like he belonged at the very top instead of being just a player who might have the odd shot at a title.

He really has so much in common with his protagonist Sergio Garcia, who looks like he is going though his own painful learning process over the past couple of years in how to win a major. His bitter experiences of Carnoustie and Oakland Hills will stand to him when he finally realises his major potential over the coming years. Harrington, on reflection, must have had a lot of empathy with Sergio recently.

Compared to the Olympians, golfers get more opportunities to compete and test themselves under the pressure of big competitions. Their big test comes but once every four years and besides world championships and European events they are not consistently on the big stage. I would imagine the "gag" factor takes over, not being able to experience the feelings of being in a major championship too often.

At the top of the game of golf there is virtually no room for national identity, golfers are playing for themselves and being self-reliant is what has got them to where they are.

The Irish Olympians who are of course self-motivated, are doing it for themselves but clearly in their country's colours and with the nation's financial backing.

So despite Pádraig being Irish, patriotic and proud, he really has very little connection to the governing bodies of the game in this country; he decides who he needs on his team, he pays them and he moves forward in the lonely world of professional golf at his own pace, at his own expense.

It is interesting to see who jumps on the Paddy wagon of success, individual sponsors who have nothing to cheer about in the corporate world are delighted a golfer they have aligned themselves to has hit form at an ideal moment for the flagging business world.

So it's "Up the Dubs" and "Go on Paudie" because we seem to have little to cheer about as a nation on the world stage in any other sport. Let's make golf an Olympic sport and bolster our national sporting pride.