In the past 14 months Padraig Harrington has beaten Sergio García twice when it mattered most. The first time, when the paint-by-numbers Irishman defeated the Spanish artista in a playoff at the 2007 British Open, García could barely be bothered to praise the winner. The second time, last month at the PGA Championship, Harrington buried García on the final two holes and the runner-up offered the winner the coolest of congratulatory handshakes. García has long been bratty in defeat, but there was more going on than that. He had lost to a man with less talent, and it hurt. When Rocco Mediate lost to Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines, Rocco looked like a king. But Harrington, that plodder, had turned García into a major loser twice. How do you say bite me in Spanish? García, John Daly, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Pat Perez, Ian Poulter, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods ... the list of golfers with more game than Harrington, guys with higher golfing GPAs, is long. The Harrington report card relies on neatness and effort. By consensus:
"What he's shown," says Poulter, an Englishman who will be on the European Ryder Cup team next week with García, Harrington and nine others, "is that work pays." Winning three of the last six majors will earn you a lot of grudging respect.
And a lot of plain respect, too. When Tiger comes back next year, whom do you think he'll be most worried about beating down the stretch for the best-in-golf menswear and hardware? Sergio? You've seen how emotional he gets on holes 63 to 72 and beyond. Phil? You know that move when he takes off his visor and runs his hand through his hair? It's because he has too much going on in his head. Veej? Super FedEx putting, for sure, but nobody's won a major with a long putter. Ernie? Maybe the most gifted of them all, but Easy couldn't spell grinder if you spotted him rinder. Nope. Tiger, notoriously poor sleeper that he is, might be reliving two professional nightmares when he's sitting up nights: the 2006 Dunlop Phoenix in Japan and his own Target World Challenge in '02. In those two events the Dublin Kid—who wears his Wilson cap so high on his forehead it looks like a beanie—defeated Tiger while paired with him. Maybe you don't remember. Tiger does.
Harrington's ball flight used to make it look as if he was bowling, but he has learned how to play high-ball golf specifically for Augusta National, where he tied for fifth in April. He has already won two British Opens, last year and this year. He won his PGA at Oakland Hills, a U.S. Open course. Yes, next year should be juicy.
And in the meantime, here comes the Ryder Cup, the event Harrington regards as his favorite in all of golf. Why? Because he does not call himself an athlete or a golfer, and certainly not a celebrity or a star, but a sportsman, just like his father before him.
The senior Paddy Harrington was a well-known Gaelic football player in Cork (barely a paying gig, but he died in '05 at 72, a legend) who fed his family as a Dublin police officer and who built a golf course with his own hands and those of his Garda golf buddies. Tiger was groomed for greatness by father Earl from the time he was teething, and he was ready for prime time by age 15; Padraig, who is 37 with a wife and three children and a house in Dublin and another under construction in a North Carolina golf community, played every sport as a kid, but most especially golf on his father's course. In his early 20s, despite his success in Walker Cup golf, he was still studying to become an accountant. He will finish his career in the Hall of Fame. Your classic overachiever.
The European sportsman in general—and the Irish sportsman in particular—loves the Olympics and the Tour de France and World Cup soccer because those events require individual athletes to bond. Last time around, when the Ryder Cup was in Dublin and Harrington was a big name but not yet a major winner, the matches overwhelmed him, the weight of a nation and all that. There were double doors at the Dublin airport that had half of Harrington's cherubic face on one side and half on the other. His play in 2006 at the K Club was horrid (he went 0-4-1), but if you only watched him cheering on the lads you'd have never known. He has no sulk gene.
Harrington said recently that he regards the 1999 Ryder Cup, the one at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., as "the single greatest golf event in which I have participated." Even though his team lost. Even though he's won majors. (Can you imagine Woods saying anything like that?) As for the famously over-the-top "U-S-A" fans at Brookline, Harrington could relate to their passion. Caring too much is a sin that Padraig—the youngest of five boys, all with traditional Gaelic names (Tadgh, Columb, Fintan, Fergal; their mother is Breda)—can understand.
In September 1999, Harrington was largely unknown to American fans until Ryder Cup Sunday. For much of that afternoon it looked as if the eighth singles match—pitting Harrington against the PGA Tour's most celebrated Irish-American, Mark O'Meara—would decide the Cup. The Southies came out in droves. Well, maybe not exactly that, but Irish Boston was having a good time with it. On the 14th O'Meara made a bogey. Harrington had a downhill, tilting four-footer for par to go 1 up. There was almost no grass between Harrington's ball and the hole. He couldn't read the line, and neither could his veteran caddie, Dave McNeely of Belfast. The golfer committed to a line (that's huge, fellow duffers, that right there), and it turned out to be the wrong one and his ball went hissing past the hole. Now the overserved spectators were hooting and hollering and Harrington was staring down a yard of uphill hell for the halve. Draino. It was Paddy's bar mitzvah (occasion marking a boy's passage into manhood, etc.).
Three holes later Harrington walked to the green before playing a pitch shot from 100 yards out. Just marched on up, with Mr. Mark O'Meara, winner of the 1998 Masters and British Open, waiting. With the whole golf world watching. It looked as if Harrington was pacing the thing off and slow-playing Tiger's best friend. How do you say balls of steel in Gaelic?