Originally created 08/13/02

Irish eyes smilin' in the majors



CHASKA, Minn. -- Padraig Harrington walked through a wall of autograph seekers on his way to the practice range Monday at Hazeltine National Golf Club when one exuberant fan shouted, "Awwwright Padraig! You the man, bay-bee!"

"I always worry about a man calling me 'baby,"' Harrington said.

The 30-year-old Irishman has no problem being referred to as "the man."

Never mind that Harrington has never won a major, has never won in America, has never even won the money title on the European Tour.

Having finished in the top 10 in the previous three majors, Harrington has emerged as a top candidate to end Europe's 72-year winless drought in the PGA Championship.

He had no expectations at Augusta National. He has plenty of them at Hazeltine, site of the final major of the year.

"When you've played well in the first couple of them, there's a self-induced pressure, and a bit of pressure from the outside," he said. "At Augusta, it's a major and you're trying your best. But this week, there are people thinking I've got an outside chance. It puts more tension into the week."

Then he paused and smiled, relishing the thought of the added pressure.

"You know you're doing well when you have it," he said.

Harrington certainly has had his chances.

He tied for fifth at the Masters, and while he was six strokes behind Tiger Woods, it was as close as he had ever been in a major. He played with Woods in the third round of the U.S. Open, fading on the weekend with rounds of 73-75 to tie for eighth.

And then there was Muirfield.

Harrington was nearly flawless in the final round of the British Open, 5 under for the day when he came to the 18th hole believing he needed to make birdie to have any chance at the silver claret jug.

Instead of playing it safe, he hit driver - onto the practice range. Harrington wound up with a bogey and finished one stroke out of the playoff.

He makes no apologies for being so aggressive. At the time, he was one stroke behind eventual winner Ernie Els and had just come off a birdie on the par-5 17th in which he reached the green with a 3-iron from a sand-filled divot.

"You can't believe how much confidence I had going to the 18th tee," he said. "Maybe I felt too good. I didn't care if I finished second, third, fourth, fifth, eighth, 10th, 20th. I was just trying to win."

He and Sergio Garcia are the only players with top-10 finishes in the three majors, and Harrington says that's no accident.

It's a tossup between Harrington and Vijay Singh who spends more time on the practice range. Even at the Williams World Challenge, Woods' end-of-the-year tournament in California that is supposed to be played for good times and lots of money, Harrington was hitting balls until he could no longer see where they landed.

The work is starting to bear results.

Despite six runner-up finishes last year in Europe, Harrington ended the season with a victory at the Volvo Masters in Spain and climbed to No. 14 in the world.

Most of the attention among full-time European players has been on seven-time Order of Merit winner Colin Montgomerie, Lee Westwood of England, and Darren Clarke, best known for beating Woods in the finals of the 2000 Match Play Championship.

Harrington goes about his work quietly and efficiently, and he is starting to believe he belongs at the top of the list among European contenders.

"I feel a lot more comfortable at No. 7 in the world now than I did at No. 14 at the start of the year," he said. "That's the change in confidence."

Does he consider himself Europe's best player?

"At this moment, that's the truth," he said. "Things change very quickly. Guys come and go with form. I've shown consistency in form, and other Europeans have shown flashes of better form in a shorter period of time."

The turning point in the season came at Bethpage, when he was paired with Woods and was treated to the circus that comes with it.

Harrington shot a 73 that Saturday, while Woods put together an even-par 70 to build a four-stroke lead on his way to another U.S. Open victory.

Still, he left New York feeling as though he was closer than ever.

"Maybe it was playing with Tiger," he said. "You get to see the guy winning the tournament. I didn't walk away from Bethpage feeling like, 'I should have won this' or anything like that, but I walked away feeling capable.

"It was a significant step."

The next is winning, and the challenge will be just as formidable. Woods is coming off a victory in the Buick Open, and his confidence and game appear to be on cruise control. Els is coming off his first major victory in five years.

And history is hardly on Harrington's side. The last European-born player to win the PGA Championship was Tommy Armour in 1930, when it was a match-play format.

Then again, Tony Jacklin of England won a U.S. Open at Hazeltine in 1970.

"I've worked on my game," Harrington said. "It's starting to show some benefits, and hopefully, it will keep going."



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