The Open: All eyes are on Tiger Woods but Harrington is in the zone
A Potentially fearsome links with the curious distinction of having no view of the sea is the setting this week for the 141st Open Championship. And with impeccable timing, Padraig Harrington will head to Royal Lytham as a stand-out nominee for induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame next year.
In a field headed by Tiger Woods, six Irish challengers provide a sharp reflection of the current golfing hierarchy in Ireland. As the lone representative from the Republic, Harrington is joined by Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Michael Hoey and Alan Dunbar.
Interestingly, it will be Hoey's first Open since he played at Royal Lytham as the reigning British Amateur champion of 2001 and missed the cut. And 11 years on, Dunbar fills precisely the same role, having captured the Amateur title at Royal Troon last month.
Harrington can take considerable pride in the official announcement that he has been added to the so-called International or non-American ballot for induction to the Hall of Fame in 2013, while David Duval and Steve Stricker complete the list of PGA Tour candidates.
Given that his rivals are Clarke, Max Faulkner (England), Retief Goosen (South Africa), Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spain), Graham Marsh (Australia), Colin Montgomerie (Scotland), Norman Von Nida (Australia) and Ian Woosnam (Wales), the Dubliner is clearly the most qualified in terms of Major wins.
After capturing the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, Harrington's 2008 victories in the Open at Royal Birkdale and the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, swept him over the required threshold of 50 points. And he met the other criterion by passing his 40th birthday last August. Goosen, with two US Open titles, comes closest to him in Major victories.
Meanwhile, Ireland has a rich history of Open endeavour at Lytham, dating back to 1952 when Fred Daly, in the company of Gene Sarazen, finished third behind Bobby Locke after being undone by a poor second to the 15th hole, his 69th.
Six years later, a bunkered drive on the 72nd deprived Christy O'Connor of a play-off place with Dave Thomas and the eventual winner, Peter Thomson. O'Connor also made an impact in 1969, when a course-record second round of 65 led to a fifth-place finish behind Tony Jacklin.
Paul McGinley equalled O'Connor's record in a memorable second round in 1996, when the eventual winner, Tom Lehman, lowered the target on firm, fiery terrain, with a third-round 64.
Clarke, who is now the defending champion, was the leading Irishman on that occasion in a share of 11th place.
But he has other reasons for remembering Lytham. “As an 11-year-old who had just taken up the game, I remember seeing Seve (Ballesteros) on TV, playing his famous shot out of the car-park by the 16th on the way to victory in the 1979 Open,” he said. Then, of course, there was his own effort in 2001, when he finished third behind Duval.
When Ballesteros won again at Lytham in 1988, his choice of clubs off the tee at driving holes ranged from a four-iron to the driver. This is a measure of the challenge which is posed by rough, which is certain to be extremely lush and clingy after all the recent rain, quite apart from the intensive bunkering of which the latest count is 206.
Those enthusiastic proponents of Royal Portrush as a future Open venue, might note that this has around four times the number of bunkers on the Dunluce links, where the defence of the greens is left to natural hills, mounds and hollows. This, against a background of both courses being quite similar in length, while Lytham, at 7,086 yards, now has a reduced par of 70.
With the exception of St Andrews, Lytham seems to have left us with more memorable tales than the other Open venues.
There was the occasion in 1974 when Gary Player, having overshot the 72nd green, found his ball against the clubhouse wall from where he played a remarkable, left-handed recovery shot with the back of his putter.
Then, on the same hole in 1988, the gifted Ballesteros almost holed a glorious, sand-wedge chip and run from off the back left of the green for a winning par against Nick Price.
While acknowledging that Woods is, quite correctly, favourite this week, Harrington expressed his admiration for the way the American approaches competition at this level. “You don't see him on the range beating balls in the week of a Major,” he said.
“He turns up with his game ready. Going into a Major, you have to be very comfortable with who you are, what you've done and where you're at, rather than being the guy trying to figure it all out. You must manage what you've got, rather than be seeking something you haven't got.
“I've learned that having that quiet feeling of readiness is the most important thing. Tiger certainly has a handle on it, as his 14 Majors testify.”
From a competitive standpoint, Lytham is said to place so much pressure on driving, that if you decide to be brave off the tee, you had better be straight. Yet Harrington claimed: “Though it can be a really tough test, you've got to putt well and hole out well. This applies to all the Majors where your pace-putting become especially important.
“For me, putting is always the first priority, and thinking well is a very close second,” he said.