It was here, at the Alfred Dunhill Championship a year ago, that Pádraig Harrington began the rest of his life.
former Ryder Cup captain. A rusty 75 in Carnoustie. Raw. Bruised. But not quite scarred.
Heavy Ryder Cup defeats can be traumatic events for losing captains who have dedicated two – in Harrington’s case, three – years to capturing that 17-inch trophy.
Do you remember Hal Sutton?
In 2004, Sutton presided over an American 18.5–9.5 loss to Europe in Oakland Hills. It was, and remains, a record loss for America and any Ryder Cup host.
Nobody played well for the United States that week. But sport being sport, and America being favourite, a scapegoat was sought, duly found, and promptly hanged.
Sutton, the 1983 PGA champion, has come under fire for his decision to pair Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson twice on the tournament’s opening day.
The theory was good: the two best golfers in the world lead the team. A first goal for a noisy home crowd.
Woods and Mickelson would put aside their festering rivalry on behalf of Team America. All the others would follow their example.
But the antipathy was real. The chemistry was toxic. Golf was dismal.
And all the others did take their heads.
Tiger and Phil were beaten 2&1 by Harrington and Colin Montgomerie in the morning then, after Sutton doubled for the afternoon, they lost a try on the 18th to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood.
Disgusted with how the week went and stung by the highly personal nature of the criticism, Sutton retreated to his home in Louisiana and effectively quit golf. He was only 46 years old.
Harrington found himself in a slightly different position this same week last year when he joined the ranks of the Tour proletariat.
Europe’s margin of defeat was half a point less than America’s in 2004. However, drawing a straight line of blame for the result to the captain was not so easy.
The mitigation was obvious: the strongest American team ever assembled; the disruptive effects of a pandemic; minimal travel support in Whistling Straights.
But, above all, as Harrington later pointed out, America had learned team golf the hard way. And as a reward for teaching them, his European side received a fitting.
“They are now doing everything we learned,” said Harrington, after landing in Scotland.
“We’ve taught them a thing or two over the past 20 years. They understood. Every little innovation that Europe introduced to stand out, they have it now. They do what we do.
Earlier this year, American golf writer Shane Ryan published a book about the 2021 Ryder Cup. You could interpret its title, The cup they couldn’t lose, literally.
In it, he explores how the United States, after the trauma of Gleneagles in 2014, which culminated in Mickelson’s infamous public flogging of venerable old Tom Watson, the entire American Ryder Cup process, from qualification to captaincy, to the way the team prepared, has been reworked. .
In Whistling Straights, these recalibrated conditions unleashed the fierce potential of a team comprised of eight of the world’s top 10 players.
Other than Harrington’s decision to send his players into seemingly random groups during training, despite having chosen the pairings well in advance, it was hard to question any of his decisions.
Quoted in the book, he seems to have had few personal regrets afterwards: “When I thought about the position, I was afraid of being able to give the players what they need… Could I give myself? And I think I did… I think I gave everyone as good a Ryder Cup experience as they’ve ever had.
It would be hard to argue with that.
Last year was Rory McIlroy’s sixth Ryder Cup. He had won four, but was moved to tears on Sunday at Whistling Straights, outwardly more emotional than any of the others.
“It’s been a tough week, but the more I play in this event, the more I realize it’s the best event in golf, bar none,” he said.
Last week, on the hugely popular No immobilization podcast, Shane Lowry, a rookie from Wisconsin, said he’d “make the tea if he had to” if it meant competing in another Ryder Cup.
Regrets or not, it was with a healthy sense of perspective that Harrington moved on to another stage of an epic sporting life.
On Saturday, speaking at Minnehaha Country Club in Sioux Falls, South Dakota – the resplendent final stop on the PGA Champions Tour – he was asked if he plans to continue playing golf in 10 year.
His performance on this circuit suggests a player who quickly overtook last year’s Ryder Cup result. Last week the 51-year-old won his third senior title of the year, adding the Ascension Charity Classic to his victories at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open and the US Senior Open. So far, Harrington has earned over $2.5 million with the highest-grossing upcoming events. But his response to Saturday’s question removed any doubt.
“If they take me out when I’m 80 to wave to the crowd, I’ll show up,” Harrington said. “The only thing I know is what I’ve done in my career…I’m going to enjoy it.
“If you see these exhibition games when I’m 80, 70, or whatever age, where I’m not able to compete for real, I’ll still come out and wave to the crowd and enjoy that. what I have done in my career.
“There’s no way I’m not taking my time and enjoying it.”
Until then, Harrington exists in a sort of half-space between the PGA Tour Champions, where he has won three times in eight starts, and the main tours.
Most athletes would gladly accept golf’s golden handshake, its silver retirement plan.
Between 2007, when he turned 50, and 2021, when he won his sixth Charles Schwab Cup title (actually the PGA Tour Champions Order of Merit), Bernhard Langer earned more than 30 million dollars on the “seniors” circuit.
Or, to put that into context, more than three times what he’s earned in 324 PGA Tour starts.
But the suspicion with Harrington is that deep down he suspects he can still cut it with the youngsters. Maybe even win again.
“It sharpens my game to be in contention,” he said.
” There is a big difference. You play most weeks on the regular circuit, you finish 20th, 30th there, you don’t learn as much as finishing a shot or two back.
It is not inconceivable.
Last year, Mickelson won the PGA at Kiawah Island at the age of 50. All of golf rose to proclaim the magnitude of the feat.
Harrington, less than a year younger, was just three strokes behind in tied fourth.
After snubbing Wentworth in favor of Missouri last week, Harrington admitted to maintaining a nagging competitive curiosity.
“I really want to give it a shot against the younger guys,” he said.
“But I kind of chickened out doing that this week. I have to sit and wonder if I’m not ready or have I really chickened out?”
Always thinking. Still analyzing.
Pádraig Harrington’s Last Age will be no less compelling than the rest.