In the last 60 years, only four golfers have accomplished the rare feat of back-to-back victories at The Open: Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington.
Three of those players were quick to make their mark on the big stage. Trevino won on his fourth major outing - at the 1968 U.S. Open – before claiming the Claret Jug for the first time at just the third attempt, Watson was victorious on his debut Open appearance in 1975 and Woods marked his maiden major as a professional with a sensational runaway victory in the 1997 Masters.
For Harrington, however, twin triumphs at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale in 2007 and 2008 represented rewards for a patient and prolonged pursuit of glory.
The Irishman was 35 years old and into his 12th season as a professional when he first tasted major success. Other players may have been frustrated by such a wait, but Harrington’s experiences as a youngster ensured he was more than comfortable with taking gradual steps to the top of the game.
“I meet kids now who are off scratch at 12 or whatever. It was different for me,” Harrington said.
“I never had a lesson until I was 15 years of age and I was playing for Ireland. I got picked, you got into a coaching system, that’s the first time I ever had a formal lesson in my life.”
Although Harrington was nowhere near a scratch handicap in his early teenage years, his competitive spirit and desire to improve could not be matched. Over time, he steadily moved closer to the level required of a professional golfer.
“When I was 13 years of age, I was a 32 handicap. When I was 14 years of age, I was a 14 handicap. When I was 15 years of age, I was a nine handicap. When I was 16 years of age, I was a five handicap and when I was 17 years of age, I was a one handicap,” Harrington revealed.
“I liked playing; I liked winning. I got the job done. It was all about getting out there and competing and thankfully I was always good at winning at my level, so even though I was in a small pond I was able to succeed in that pond, and I never, ever skipped out of that level.
“I didn’t play a professional golf event until I was a professional at 24 years of age. I never played one as an amateur. I didn’t play senior amateur events until I was 18 years of age and out of junior golf, so it was all about playing at the level I was at and trying to win there.
“I always overachieved at the level I was at. So I would win junior competitions in my club, then junior competitions outside my club, but only at my level. I never stepped up a level. I was patient and that was the one thing my father always recommended. It was always about gradual improvement.”
As he continued to develop his skills, Harrington went on to enjoy a distinguished amateur career, representing Great Britain and Ireland in either the Walker Cup or St Andrews Trophy across five successive years from 1991 to 1995.
He also realised he was more than capable of consistently taking down his rivals in head-to-head battles.
“Our biggest tournaments were the Home Internationals and the European Championships, and I never lost a singles match in six years playing for my country,” he said.
“I could beat the best, the very best of all the other countries, because I always played at the top of the order. I was beating their very best players.”
This run of continued success convinced Harrington to pursue a professional career in the game. However, in keeping with the patient approach that had yielded rewards as a youngster, he took his time and retained his amateur status for several more years before eventually moving into the paid ranks at the end of 1995.
“I decided I would turn pro because I could beat the amateurs who were turning pro,” he said. “I didn’t think I was good enough. I thought if they think they’re good enough, I’m beating them. None of the best players from 1990 to 1995 beat me in singles, you know, so I said, right, I’ll give it a go.”
Even when he finally turned professional at the age of 24, Harrington’s ambitions were modest. The idea that he would one day win successive Opens seemed fanciful, even to Harrington himself, as he began life on the European Tour.
“I went to Tour School. I got through to the final stage and finished 17th. I was amazed at that,” he said. “My goal as a professional golfer was to finish somewhere between 50th and 100th (on the Order of Merit) each year for, you know, five years, just to be a journeyman pro. That would have been success for me, to be a guy who got out there, played for five years, had a good career.”
Instead, it soon became clear Harrington was good enough to comfortably exceed those expectations.
In his first start of the 1996 European Tour season and only his second professional event, a solid showing amid trying circumstances at the FNB Players Championship gave Harrington a huge boost.
“I went to a Challenge Tour event in Nairobi and when I was there I got a late call-up to play in Durban on the European Tour,” he explained. “I think about three or four guys who were in Nairobi turned down that invite. I took it, I went down to Durban and arrived there very late on the Tuesday.
“I did my usual thing on Wednesday, I practised for 12 hours. I got seriously dehydrated, like really, really bad shakes all night, but luckily I had a late tee time, so by the time I got on the golf course I was somewhat OK.
“I had got a new set of golf clubs, which young pros often have. They were four degrees too upright and they couldn’t be bent, so I had to play with them for the week. So you could imagine everything went wrong. I was sick, I hit the golf ball as poorly as you could because of these clubs, I hardly hit a green, but I made the cut. I finished 46th and I won £1,480.
“I rang my mother straight away and I said: ‘You cannot believe it. I’ve played terrible; I’ve finished 46th; I’ve won £1,480. They are just giving it away!’ And it was probably the most pivotal moment of my professional career because I felt comfortable.
“I’ve seen a lot of good amateurs turn up at pro events, play quite nicely and miss the cut, and they think: ‘Oh my God, I have to change everything to be a pro.’ I got the opposite feeling. I turned up, felt like I’d played terrible, felt like everything had gone against me, but I still made the cut. I felt like I belonged, I felt like I could do this.”
If that performance represented an encouraging start to the 1996 campaign, things soon improved drastically for Harrington. Three consecutive top-10 finishes across April and May were followed by his maiden professional victory at the Peugeot Spanish Open. Having bided his time before turning pro, the Dubliner was quickly making quite the impression.
“I think at the end of the day I made six cuts in a row, then I made three top-10s, then I won, all based on just feeling comfortable,” he added.
“It’s the most important thing for any amateur turning pro that they get a very comfortable start, that they believe that they belong, that they’re capable.”
Harrington would go on to claim a further 11 titles on the European Tour and PGA Tour over the next decade, along with a swathe of runner-up finishes, as he gradually established himself as a force to be reckoned with at the highest level.
Nevertheless, it was not until 2006 that he finally felt like he was fully ready to achieve major success.
Harrington had certainly shown he could contend at golf’s biggest events long before then. Six top-10 placings at majors in the first eight years of his professional career included two ties for fifth at The Open in 1997 and 2002. In the second of those Championships at Muirfield, a bogey on the 72nd hole saw him miss out by one stroke on a play-off that was ultimately won by Ernie Els.
Rather than come away from that event with renewed confidence, however, Harrington struggled to identify the reasons for his strong performance.
“The strange thing about it is I always thought that was an outlier,” he said of his showing at Muirfield. “I didn’t really know what I did to play so well that week. It wasn’t like I felt like I had form.
“It fell into place without me knowing what I’d done and it took me a good few years to figure out that week.”
“I know I can win a major. I know it’s within my control, that I have the ability to get my game to a place that can win a major without necessarily feeling like I had to be lucky or in anybody else’s control.” Padraig harrington
Four years later, Harrington came away from another fifth-place finish in a major, the 2006 U.S. Open, with an entirely different attitude.
In a tournament best remembered for a dramatic finale that saw Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie each double-bogey the last hole to finish one shot behind eventual champion Geoff Ogilvy, Harrington was also left to rue a disappointing end to his fourth round.
Bogeys on each of the final three holes saw Harrington finish two off the pace, yet he came away from Winged Foot convinced that persistent work on the mental side of his game had yielded a significant breakthrough.
Detailing a discussion he had with renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella after the final round, Harrington said: “Bob was all ready to try and pick me up off the ground, basically. And I looked at him and I said: ‘No, don’t worry about this, now I know I can win a major. I know it’s within my control, that I have the ability to get my game to a place that can win a major without necessarily feeling like I had to be lucky or in anybody else’s control.’
“He asked me to explain and this is stuff I’d been working on with Bob. Every professional golfer knows that if you want to go out there and play your best, you’ve got to be free-flowing. You want to be using the right (side of your) brain, your creative side, no technical at all.
“I struggle with that because I tend to do a lot of technical work. I do a lot of practice, I do a lot of thinking and it takes me a long time to shut down, and that was the big key. Up to 2006, I was pushing, pushing, pushing all the way up to the event and even during the tournament week, and turning up on Thursday as if it was the light switch to get myself to shut down the technical talk and be into the right side of the brain and be creative and see the shot. You know, see the shots and not get in your own way.
“And in 2006 I figured out, no, this is a bigger process than I had thought. It takes weeks for me to get my brain to quieten down and stop thinking. It can’t be done overnight. And I think that was the big key. I found a bit of a formula that said, right, this point is a cut-off point. You do ‘x’ this week, you do ‘y’ the next week and then you turn up at the major and you should be ready to go come Thursday.
“A lot of players will be prepared to play well on Thursday morning so that they can make the cut, whereas I used to watch Colin Montgomerie, who did very little work during the week of the tournament but there was nobody fresher and stronger on a Sunday because he was preparing to play well on Sunday.
“So when you go into a major, you have to take a certain chance. It’s a long week, it’s a big week and if you’re in contention on the Sunday it’s double the mental strength and physical strength you need on Sunday, so you have choices. Do you prepare to win on Sunday or do you prepare to make the cut on Thursday? In 2006, I realised that I had to start two weeks in advance of the event to get my head in the right place for Sunday and that’s when you need to be in the zone. It did take that long. It took as much as three weeks.”
Such detailed mental preparation typified Harrington’s patient approach to getting the absolute maximum out of his career. Thirteen months later, his assessment that he was now capable of winning majors was proven right as he won The 136th Open at Carnoustie.
On this occasion, a difficult finish to his final round – in the form of a double-bogey on the 72nd hole – ultimately did not prove costly as Harrington edged out Sergio Garcia in a four-hole play-off.
The Champion’s meticulous nature proved beneficial on the opening extra hole as he leaned on his experience of playing links golf at the Irish PGA Championship in the week preceding The Open.
“I got a massive break on the first (play-off) hole and this was due to playing 72 holes on links golf the week before,” he said.
“We teed off in beautiful sunshine but as we walked up the fairway, a thunder cloud came in and covered the sun and the temperature probably dropped at least five degrees. And if you watch the replay, Sergio under-clubbed by a club at least, maybe two clubs he under-clubbed by going into the green.
“I had 160 yards – that’s an 8-iron for me. I hit a hard 7-iron from where I was because I knew from playing the week before that the temperature made a huge difference to how far the ball would go in those conditions. There was a tiny bit of breeze there, but the temperature made the big difference and that’s why I think Sergio was probably 15-20 yards out with his second shot, whereas I adjusted for that temperature based on my experience of playing links golf.
“I’ll be forever grateful for that one thundercloud.”
After opening up a two-shot advantage on the first play-off hole, Harrington remained in front thereafter to claim the Claret Jug, but he was far from finished there.
A magnificent title defence at Royal Birkdale followed in 2008, as the reigning Champion triumphed by four shots after a spectacular eagle on the 71st hole.
Harrington also won the US PGA Championship just three weeks later to secure a third major title in 13 months. More than a decade on from his professional debut and over 20 years after he first represented his country, he was reaping the benefits of his dedication and patience.
“As I said for many years, I certainly was never a pretty golfer. I never looked like I would be a pretty golfer. I didn’t look like I had it all,” said Harrington.
“I performed like I had it all, because the talents I have are the stuff behind the scenes: the mental talents, the short-game talents, the will to win. All the stuff you would never see on a driving range.
“If competitive golf was played on a driving range, I would not be a three-time major winner. But when you get out there and you put me under pressure, I’m prepared to put my neck on the line. That’s the biggest thing.
“I never was the guy that you’d look out and say, ‘wow, he’s destined to be the greatest player of all-time in golf. I’m the guy who had to learn it, had to figure it out, and I’ve enjoyed that I’ve had to learn it.”