News & Opinion

Harrington’s jug overflows with ladybirds

Late last year at the PNC Bank Father and Son Challenge, inquiring minds wanted to know the back story behind the matching ladybug head covers that Padraig Harrington and son Patrick carried in their bag to conceal their drivers. 

"I can tell this one," the younger Harrington said.

More than a decade earlier, when Patrick was just 3 years old, he carried a stuffed ladybug animal when his father won the 2007 British Open in a four-hole playoff over Sergio Garcia. It would prove to be his first of three major championships as Harrington became the first Irishman since Fred Daly 60 years earlier to have his name engraved on the Claret Jug.

“Can we put ladybirds in it?” Patrick asked at the time, using the British and Irish term for ladybugs.

“We can, indeed,” Harrington told him. “We’ll put ladybirds in it.” 

Harrington came out on top on a wild final day at Carnoustie, which will play host to its eighth Open, beginning Thursday (tee times).

Padraig Harrington
Padraig Harrington credits son Patrick with putting the Irishman in the proper mindset for the ensuing playoff at the 2007 British Open.

© GOLFFILE/MATTHEW HARRIS
Padraig Harrington credits son Patrick with putting the Irishman in the proper mindset for the ensuing playoff at the 2007 British Open.

Harrington arrived at the 499-yard finishing hole having played near-flawless golf. He made four birdies and then a 20-foot eagle putt at 14 to reach 9 under and tie little-known Argentine pro Andres Romero, who carded 10 birdies but finished double bogey-bogey to miss the playoff. 

It didn't seem possible that anyone could ever repeat Jean Van de Velde's disastrous triple bogey at the finishing hole in 1999 to blow a three-stroke lead and slip into a playoff eventually won by Paul Lawrie, but Harrington nearly did so.

The 18th at Carnoustie is one of the scariest finishing holes in all of golf. The murky Barry Burn twists and turns throughout. To the left, the rough had grown kilt-high. Out of bounds lurks farther left, and for good measure the hole is dotted with bunkers.

"There's nowhere to hide," Harrington said.

Harrington knew that from experience. He lost his quarterfinal match of the 1992 British Amateur when he smacked his approach at the last hole out of bounds and made 6. This time, his first mistake was driving it into the water.

"Someplace in the middle of my backswing," he said, "I had this thought of Don't hit it left, and blocked it right."

He took a drop in a downslope of an old divot and compounded his error by fatting a 5-iron into the burn short of the green. Harrington could have been deflated, but instead he had the self-belief that he still could hole the next shot.

"He has one of the most upbeat attitudes," said Bob Rotella, Harrington's sports psychologist. "I remember the first time he told me he was going to win majors was on a Friday at the Masters 10 minutes after he missed the cut by one shot. I met him at the putting green and he tells me, 'I just found out today that I'm going to win majors. I got my mind and body to do what I want to do.' You don't often hear a guy say he's going to win majors after he misses the cut on Friday."

Staring down his fifth shot, Harrington was grasping at straws to latch on to something positive.

"I got to my ball and I had 55 yards. It suddenly hits me: I've got this shot. I've got a lower spinner I can hit all day," Harrington said. "As soon as I hit the shot, I knew it was going to be perfect."

It stopped 5 feet behind the hole.

"I got up to the putt and I just knew I was going to make it," Harrington said. 

He did, and he started to walk off the green torn by two conflicting thoughts. ''Everything I ever needed to know about myself, I just found out,'' he said of the clutch wedge, but he'd also seemingly choked away his best chance at a major. 

"I genuinely wanted the ground to open up and swallow me," Harrington said. "That’s how I felt as I walked off the green.”

But he didn't get far before Patrick came barreling at him and Harrington lifted the boy into his arms. “He didn’t know I had lost,” Harrington said. “That completely changed my mindset. I walked off convincing myself that I’m going to win the Open.”

Harrington got a reprieve when Garcia's potential 8-foot winning par putt slid past the hole and forced extra holes.

"If Sergio parred the last and I did lose, I think I would have struggled to come back out and be a competitive golfer," Harrington said at the time in his news conference. "It meant that much to me. But I never let it sink into me that I had just thrown away the Open Championship."

Rotella waited outside the scoring trailer to give Harrington a pep talk but quickly realized that it would be unnecessary.

“He said: ‘Doc, when you see me wave to the gallery, only us two will know the truth. That will be me imagining that I’m holding the Claret Jug,’ ” Rotella told me for a previous story I wrote for The New York Times. “I don’t like my guys to look ahead, but this was a pure expression of confidence. I knew he was in a good place, and so I just gave him a high five and said, ‘Go get ’em.’ ”

In a TV interview earlier this year with Golfing World, Harrington explained a key moment on the first playoff hole that I'd never heard him detail before. 

"As we were walking off the tee, a big, black thunder cloud came across the sun and the temperature dropped," Harrington said.

Having a lifetime of experience playing links golf, Harrington knew that the temperature change might affect the ball flight, so he clubbed down to a 7-iron and swung mightily. His ball landed pin high, 7 feet left of the hole. Garcia, in contrast, bounced his approach into the front greenside bunker, coming up two clubs short of his target line. 

"Literally, that one cloud had a silver lining for me," Harrington said.

Harrington made birdie and Garcia bogey, and by the time they returned to 18 in the playoff, Harrington held a two-stroke lead.

"It's about 60-70 yards to the 18th tee," Harrington said. "I've got a two-shot lead going to the fourth playoff hole, and all I'm telling myself is, I can still lose this."

But 18 wouldn't derail his quest this time. Harrington, who two years earlier withdrew from the championship at St. Andrews to bury his father, Paddy, who died of esophageal cancer, sweated out a 3½-foot bogey putt, but the title of Champion Golfer of the Year belonged to him. Surely, it was the first time that ladybirds filled the Claret Jug.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak