As the presence of three major championship victories amidst 31 overall wins as a professional testify clearly, Padraig Harrington already has had a distinguished career in golf. But the soon-to-be 50-year-old Irishman also deserves a spot in the “Talking Hall of Fame.” And he was at his best during a 45-minute chat with the media on the eve of the European Tour’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Where many players tend towards shortness off the tee when it comes to the length of their responses to questions, Harrington is the verbal equivalent of Bryson DeChambeau with a driver in his hands.
He covered all the bases. First, there was a brief mention of his playing plans over the coming months. The European Ryder Cup skipper will wait and see how competitive he remains on the regular tours before making any decision as to where he will tee up beyond his 50th birthday Aug. 31. Inevitably, however, the bulk of the questions centered on his captaincy of a team that may or may not show significant change from the one that triumphed so convincingly in Paris in 2018.
In completing his 12-strong side, Harrington has been allocated—at his own request—three picks, exactly half those at the disposal of U.S. captain Steve Stricker. But, as ever, the Irishman is well capable of justifying that apparent imbalance.
“I didn’t want any more than three,” Harrington said. “I believe players should be given the right to qualify. Those who qualify deserve to be there. I think that’s why we’re good in Europe—because of the system. We give everybody a chance. It shouldn’t be exclusive, limited only to those who are supposedly the best players. You’ve got to give rookies a chance to qualify. Everybody on the European Tour who is eligible feels like, hey, I have a chance of making this team. That’s very important for the morale of the team; everybody feels they are part of it. Besides, giving me six picks would have given me a hell of a headache.”
One man Harrington will almost certainly not have to select on his own is Tyrrell Hatton. Like many in Europe, Harrington was heartened by what he saw from the Englishman as he strode to victory in Abu Dhabi last week.
“Tyrrell is everything you’d want in a player for sure,” Harrington said. “He does seem to have it when under pressure on the big occasions and with big players staring him down. He was brilliant going against Rory [McIlroy] and Tommy Fleetwood last week. He’s a Ryder Cup captain’s dream. Which is exactly what you want, a player that has that gumption and can really get it done. It would have been easy for Tyrrell to play nicely and finish second or third. But he took that tournament by the scruff of the neck, and from a captain’s point of view it was very impressive. That’s the sort of stuff I’d like to see all my players doing.”
There were also words of perspective for the recently defeated McIlroy. Despite the four-time major winner coming close but not winning—for what seems like the umpteenth time since his last victory in late 2019—Harrington was far from worried by his compatriot’s form. Patience rather than panic is Harrington’s message.
“We would all like to play as ‘bad’ as Rory McIlroy,” he said with a smile. “He’s there every week. So plenty of wins are going to come. Rory has been great in his career, but he has had periods where he’s just not winning. This, in fact, is the best period Rory has ever had not winning. He’s there or thereabouts all the time. If he had been doing this three, four, five years ago, he would have been missing a few cuts. Now he’s just contending. OK, he’s not getting across the line at the very end, but when he does, he’ll go on a run of winning six, seven, eight times in a year.
“From a Ryder Cup point of view, I’m kind of happy to see it,” Harrington continued. “He was playing unbelievable at the start of last year. I said it at that stage, I’d just like to rein him in a little bit and hold him back. We don’t want him burning himself out. We want him fresh and ready to go come September. So I’m actually very pleased with where he’s at. Rory is at his best when he’s trying to prove a point or two.”
Inevitably, the subject of what sort of Ryder Cup we can expect to see in these uniquely tumultuous times came up. Like everyone else, Harrington has no idea in what are ever-changing times. But he is hopeful that at least some spectators will be present at Whistling Straits to provide the biennial contest’s unique atmosphere.
“I’m certainly no scientist,” he said. “I can’t predict what it’s going to be like in September. The only thing I can do as a captain is prepare myself and my team as best I can with the idea that it’s full steam ahead. The European Tour and the PGA of America will do the planning for all contingencies. But as a captain, that’s above my pay grade. For me, it’s just about getting my team ready. We have to turn up and play with what we are presented with. If it does go ahead with a full crowd it will be a seriously, seriously big party. The relief for people to go to a sporting event of that magnitude will be palpable. I’m sure the players will appreciate it. Maybe I’m being hopeful, but that’s exactly what I want to see.”
As for who Harrington will have alongside him as assistants, he remains unwilling to identify the three names who will accompany Robert Karlsson and Luke Donald on the army of carts that now routinely travel the Ryder Cup fairways. But there was a strong hint that former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell will repeat the roles he filled at Le Golf National in 2018. The other two are “up for grabs,” although Harrington admitted that they will go to experienced men who are currently harboring hopes of making the side as players. In other words, the likes of Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose.
“[2018 captain] Thomas [Bjorn] had a very good backroom staff the last time,” said Harrington, who served as one of the Dane’s five vice captains. “We had a few different personalities in that grouping. Some guys who were heavy on the stats, others heavy on the emotional side of it. Between us, we came up with nice options and balance that allowed Thomas to make his decisions. And Graeme was very much part of that. From what I saw, he makes a very good vice captain. He does have the ear of players and the respect of players, so it’s certainly a possibility that he could be.”
In conclusion, Harrington’s nimble brain found time to comment on the recent Tiger Woods HBO documentary that aired recently in the U.K. and Ireland. He hadn’t actually viewed the film and clearly doesn’t feel any desire to rectify that fact, preferring to rely—as fellow non-viewers Hatton, Collin Morikawa, Sergio Garcia and Rose have all agreed this week—on his own impressions of the man.
“The good news is I’ve met Tiger, so I don’t necessarily need to see it,” Harrington said. “I know Tiger. I know who he is. I know who he is today, which is really all that matters to me. A better way to judge somebody is when you actually have that inside track rather than letting something else do it for you. I always thought he was one of the best guys to play golf with. Really good guy. He only said ‘good shot’ when you hit a good shot. He was serious. It was all about the golf.
“Back in the day it was harder to get to know him,” Harrington continued. “But that has changed. I can empathize with how he has changed and matured because of family and kids. I can see that in my own life. Early on in our careers, we were just so focused on our golf, what we were doing. Nothing got in our way. But as we get older we appreciate being out here and actually enjoying everything that goes on. When I see Tiger now he’s more relaxed. He chats more. He’s not as businesslike as he was. He has mellowed.”
Harrington has too. But he can still talk. Nothing has changed there.