Triumph will not deflect Harrington's long-term plans

 

IT WAS the most dramatic breakthrough in the history of Irish professional golf. Padraig Harrington joined paid ranks only last September, having appeared in a triumphant Walker Cup side at Royal Porthcawl and then in the Home Internationals at Royal Portrush. Now, less than eight months later, hem is a tournament winner.

One of the more remarkable aspects of his achievement is that it should have come on the Iberian Peninsula, such fruitful terrain for Irish challengers over the years. For instance, he joins Eddie Polland (twice) and Eamonn Darcy as a winner of the Spanish Open; Des Smyth won the Sanyo Open, while his 1993 victory in the Madrid Open followed the successes by Jimmy Kinsella and David Feherty in that event.

Then there was the 1992 Portuguese Open win of Ronan Rafferty and the victory last year of Philip Walton in the Catalan Open.

Meanwhile, Ireland's latest professional champion paid generous tributes last night to his current colleagues. "Des Smyth gave me a bunker lesson when I asked him for help during the Turespana Masters at El Saler," said Harrington, who will be 25 on August 31st. "He was very good about it and showed me how to get more spin by hitting a softer shot and cutting more across the ball."

He went on: "It certainly helped me win here because my short game was terrific. That's what won me this title. I got up and down from sand on seven out of eight occasions and I three-putted only once. And that was at the last hole when it didn't matter.

"Then there was the encouragement I got from Darren Clarke and Eamonn Darcy who came up to me before the start and wished me luck, telling me just to play my normal game. It was nice of two experienced tournament winners to do that."

Interestingly, Harrington made his first, serious impact in senior amateur golf in Clarke's last appearance before turning professional. That was in the 1990 Irish Close Championship at Baltray where Clarke beat the Stackstown player in the final. Now, both of them can boast professional victories, Clarke having achieved the breakthrough in the 1993 Belgian Open.

Meanwhile, Harrington also paid tribute to the work he has been doing with sports psychologist Dr Aidan Moran, a lecturer at University College Dublin, and to fitness expert Helen Lennon from the Belfast-based Agile Sports Consultancy. "I had a session with Aidan during the two-week break alter the Madeira Open," he said, "and that certainly helped keep me mentally fresh this weekend."

Ms Lennon, who worked with the Down All-Ireland winning Gaelic Football team devised a programme of stretching exercises for him. "I'm glad I have started working on improving my fitness because my legs were really tired after the 36 holes we had to play today," he said.

As for his splendid triumph, he is determined that it won't deflect him from his long-term plans in the game. "I'm not going to get carried away with this victory," he said. "Superstardom is not for me. I shall just carry on working, plod along in my own way and keep trying to improve.I certainly don't think I have it.

"I am going to have missed cuts and slumps and there will be bad times. But this week everything went well for me. I chipped well, I putted well and everything I tried, came off. I got all the breaks and it's a great feeling to know that when you have a lucky week you can be a winner.

"It will take a while for the full impact of this to sink in. I'm really surprised at how quickly it has come, because it is so difficult even to make the cut. Once you get through to the third round, you're competing."

He then confirmed that he would be competing in this week's Benson and Hedges International at The Oxfordshire and in the £1 million Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth a week later. That itself should help the adjustment towards his elevated status, insofar as when I spoke to him last Tuesday about Wentworth, he replied: "I haven't a chance of getting in there."

Apart from winning in Spain, it is interesting to note the player he beat into runners-up position. Gordon Brand Jnr had an amateur career remarkably similar to Harrington's insofar as he clearly excelled in strokeplay events while frequently struggling in matchplay.

Harrington had several, bitter disappointments in Irish championships yet remained totally committed to the game, particularly at representative level. Indications of a promising future in professional ranks were to be found, however, in successive victories in the Irish Amateur Open Strokeplay Championship at Fota Island.

And few professional careers can have been planned so carefully. While contemporaries such as Clarke, Paul McGinley and Raymond Burns made the move into paid ranks, Harrington remained determined to complete his accountancy studies so that he would have a useful qualification to fall back on.

Proficiency at accountancy is now certain to be of great benefit to him, but in a rather different sense than originally anticipated. He will know how to take care of the considerable wealth which is certain to amass from his tournament activities. Indeed one is reminded that Rafferty, rated as the finest young prospect in the history of Irish golf when he turned professional as a 17-year-old, had to wait until he was 25 before winning a European Tour event.