THE handsome, smiling face of Padraig Harrington is familiar to millions worldwide. However, as he strides the fairways of golf’s top events, his pleasant countenance belies the steely determination that lies underneath. For, make no mistake, Ireland’s greatest golfer is a winner – and he is prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to join the golden circle of Major titleholders.
Already a millionaire many times over, he makes it clear that it’s not the money that matters any more. “I’m pressure-driven, not money-driven,” he explains, “driven to do well, to succeed.” And, as a member of golf’s elite Top 10, that can only mean success in the US Masters, the British Open, the US Open or the US PGA, the four ‘majors’ that all professional golfers aspire to.
Behind Harrington the golfer, there is the family man, the man of faith, the controlled individual, all characteristics which anchor his feet firmly to the ground. For he is well aware of the pitfalls of fame. “There is a lot of hype around sport,” he says, “and when you’re successful it’s possible to believe your own hype. However, that is to be avoided if you want to have a normal, well-balanced life. Hype won’t help you play any better, but it can have a detrimental effect on your game.
“The family is the only thing that keeps your feet on the ground. To them I’m still the little brother. When I move outside the family circle, people treat me differently, but within the family, after a success, they say ‘well done’, but it’s not a big deal.”
Golf is an individual sport, with the pursuit of perfection the goal. Initially it’s the perfect swing, then the perfect shot, the perfect putt, with the ultimate being a continuous stream of perfect shots for the duration of the tournament. Naturally, no one achieves perfection, but individuals react quite strongly when their aims are thwarted by a stray shot or a bad bounce. Clubs are thrown, bad language fills the air – golfers with fiery tempers become a danger zone.
Even a legendary golfer like Bobby Jones, founder of the Masters, spent years battling to control his temper, whereas Harrington always gives the impression of being in total control. I wondered if this was always the case or had it been difficult to achieve that level of calm under pressure.
For this, Padraig again gives the credit to his family, and especially his father Paddy, a noted footballer for Cork in the 1950s, when he played in an All-Ireland final.
“I was always very controlled, “ he says, “and some of that is due to circumstances. I grew up in Stackstown Golf Club and my Dad was always there in charge of something or other, so I was aware that if I lost my temper my Dad would hear about it.
“I always felt that I needed to have a proper demeanour because I was representing my Dad, and that he was there and watching over me, though not in a physical sense. One of the proudest things my Dad would say was that he never got booked (during his football career), so I was brought up to behave properly.
“I was up in Stackstown since I was four years of age, when I physically helped build the 12th green. I can remember it well. I was lucky, I just had to walk on the green, my older brothers had to pick the stones out!
“But no, I never felt like losing my temper – ever. I knew from an early age that it’s a sign of weakness.”
As a teenager, Padraig played a lot of team sports, and he believes they were a big help in moulding his temperament and his attitude to sport’s ups and downs. “I was a goalkeeper and you learn a lot about highs and lows from playing there: when you win, the forwards get the credit, and if you lose, the goalie is often to blame.”
Golf can be a selfish, time-consuming game, and Padraig says that he “would never recommend to anyone to play golf alone,” but it was an injury which prompted him to abandon football and concentrate on golf.
“I never felt I would be a professional golfer when I left school,” he admits. “Fortunately, my brother Colm brought me to Rathmines Tech and enrolled me in a night course for accountancy. I had the best of both worlds – I could play golf in the day and study at night.”
It wasn’t until he had qualified as an accountant that Padraig, after a star-studded career as an amateur, decided to join the professional ranks. His expectations weren’t particularly high, but within months he won the Spanish Open, and he has gradually climbed the world rankings since, being ranked sixth at the start of this year.
With his accountancy qualifications and his head for figures, Padraig could be running a big company now – and, in effect, that is what he is doing, making important decisions every day.
“Yes,” he agrees, “that would be the case. That’s the thing when you are your own boss, you make all the decisions from whether to practise today or not to practise, to what you want to achieve and how driven you are. It’s the same as someone in business taking a risk and going out on their own. Their success depends on how driven they are.”
Among the decisions he makes which affect others are the various charities he supports. At present he is involved with the Three Ts (Turning the Tide against suicide) and Guide Dogs for the Blind, and he also ran his own Golf Show last January to raise money for charity.
“I meet a lot of different charities through corporate days and pro-ams, and some I get more personally involved with, but you can never do enough. The Golf Show was great for me because I raised good money doing something I like to do and I was giving something back to some of my supporters.”
When it comes to wealth and the possibility of it creating a gap between himself and others, Padraig made some interesting observations. “As the youngest of five boys, I always thought we were wealthy when I was growing up, but wealth does create a gap in certain things, hopefully not in the things that matter.
“I rely heavily on my family to keep me grounded. For me, the difference wealth has made is that I was able to build a nice home, one that I had dreamed of as a teenager, and put all the facilities in it, but besides that I hope I’m pretty much the same guy.”
Wealth has a tendency to bring out the arrested adolescent in some sportsmen, but again Padraig’s remarks on this phenomenon were of interest. “Playing sport keeps you young, and if you don’t act young your career will end quickly,” is his view.
“I’m 33, but I don’t feel 33, and I hope I never do. It’s good to keep a very young outlook. It’s only a small minority of sportsmen who act like irresponsible teenagers, and it comes down to idle time more than anything else. That and the degree of disposable income.”
Being a hard worker – he is generally one of the last to leave the practice ground – Padraig is not likely to have much idle time, but, for relaxation, he likes “popcorn movies. If I’m asked to engage my brain during a movie, I usually tear strips off it. I prefer the all-action no-brainer.”
And when it comes to reading, his choice is work-related. “Any recommended reading relating to my sport, books on sport psychology and some general psychology as well. They are nearly self-help books, but that’s the wrong word.” In effect, he is seeking an edge on his competitors even through his reading.
Spending the year travelling from one major event to another, hopping from Europe to America and back again, with the final day invariably on a Sunday, makes practising the Faith on tour a mite difficult. “Yes, that’s true, without a doubt,” Padraig responds. “Every week in the US there is a Christian prayer meeting, but Sunday is an awkward day. It’s better in Europe where there are churches everywhere and they are uplifting to go to even when the Mass is in a foreign language.”
For the past year, Padraig’s father has been suffering from cancer, and this has had an impact, both on Padraig’s career and his faith.
“It has impacted on my life in many ways: in obvious ways like my schedule, and in less obvious ways in my own physical well-being, with the stress I feel. It affects your central nervous system, and that curtails my performance.
“At times like this your faith is ever more important and I think a lot more about it. Overall it gives me comfort, but it does raise doubts as well.”
When I suggest that, in such circumstances, it can be a battle to hold on to your faith, he replies with a chuckle: “Yes, but it would be boring if it wasn’t a battle.”
It seems that Padraig Harrington’s lessons on life have been acquired as readily as his lessons on golf.