When Padraig Harrington shot 64 to seize the lead at Bethpage on Thursday, his performance was immediately cast in light of his ongoing struggle to secure a place on Jose Maria Olazabal’s Ryder Cup team roster.
The Spaniard has, over the previous two months, made it explicitly clear that Harrington needs to produce something “spectacular” to secure a coveted captain’s pick ahead of Martin Kaymer, Nicolas Colsaerts and a host of less illustrious European rivals.
Though far from inexplicable — the Dubliner, after all, has failed to produce at three successive Ryder Cups — Olazabal’s intransigence on the issue has been underpinned throughout by an unpleasant note of satisfaction, even smugness. Schadenfreude is writ large.
Where others have enjoyed words of encouragement, Harrington has received only grim reiterations of his numerous long-term failings and cursory dismissals of his most recent achievements, among which can be listed highly competitive showings at both the Masters and US Open.
It’s an attitude that has, predictably, only served to compromise Harrington’s usually robust mental equilibrium. His public pronouncements have grown strained and feverish (witness Thursday evening’s press conference transcript), his on-course exploits ever more scattershot and mercurial.
He is, it appears, in the process of succumbing to PR water torture, a slow drip-drip of discouragement from on high.
But how did this rift, between two of the continent’s most dignified elder statesmen, come to form?
For that, we need to cast our minds back to 2003… *cue dreamlike music and water effects*
… when Harrington and Olazabal contested a crucial Sunday singles match at the Seve Tropyhy in El Saler, Spain.
While surveying the line of a relatively short putt on the third green, the Spaniard pointed to a couple of blemishes he believed to be pitch marks. Harrington claimed to be less sure, however, and set about calling for the match referee to make a determination.
Before an official could arrive on the scene, however, Olazabal leant over, fork in hand, and set about repairing the indentations.
It’s at this point that Harrington, drawing on his deep reserves of sarcasm (it’s an Irish thing), is said to have remarked:
“Doing a bit of gardening down there, are we?”
Olazabal, whose professional career has revealed him to be nothing if not a proud and scrupulous competitor, took immediate offence. He opted to concede the hole rather than allow, as he saw it, his character to be called into question.
Harrington attempted to remonstrate, but to no avail.
The pair played the following 15 holes in a silence only broken when the Irishman converted a four-foot putt to rescue a half-point on the final green. Enough, incidentally, to ensure GB&I retained the trophy for another two years.
A further 15 minutes of debate, explanation, abortive apology and frustration yielded only deadlock.
The incident was then complicated by the intervention of Sergio Garcia (naturally), who set upon Harrington as he loitered with teammates in the vicinity of the club’s practice green, shouting loud and sarcastic congratulations.
Harrington later explained the situation to reporters:
“It’s not worth losing a friend over, but we had 15 very awkward holes. I was not trying to question his integrity but that’s what he thought and I can 100% see his side.
“I certainly won’t be celebrating tonight and it’s not the way I would have liked to get a half.”
(Though an amalgam of several accounts, the above is best read as a complement to this radio interview with Des Smyth and Karl McGinty, then a GB&I vice-captain. Action begins just after the 40-minute mark.)
UPDATE: Brian Keogh, of Irish Golf Desk, has some interesting Ollie quotage this morning:
“If people believe that is interfering with my jugement, first of all they are completely wrong. If that was the case, I would be failing as a captain. So that is a lot of B.S. That’s putting it gently.”