We are only two weeks into the new year but Padraig Harrington’s mind is already in September.
Harrington is juggling the demands of his own playing career with the task of captaining Europe as they defend the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits this autumn.
The match against Steve Stricker’s Americans may be almost eight months away, but Harrington is buzzing at the prospect of inspiring another European win.
He expects the USA to be boosted by a revived Tiger Woods, likely to be the most dangerous he has ever been at a Ryder Cup. He also knows the Wisconsin crowds will make it a hostile environment for Europe’s players.
On the plus side, Harrington also believes the venue will play much more into European hands than previous US Ryder Cup courses.
His reasoning is detailed in a wide ranging interview for BBC 5 Live Sport, which will be aired on Thursday. Harrington also tells a hilarious story of the time he thought he might need to wade into a crowd to defend Rory McIlroy in a fist fight.
But Europe’s captain is most striking when he assesses the threat of Woods. The reigning Masters champion has only once played on a winning Ryder Cup team and that was back in 1999.
“I’d be more wary of Tiger Woods now than back in the day,” Harrington said.
His theory is that, in the past, the unique demands of Ryder Cup weeks upset Woods’ equilibrium, but that the 44-year-old is now more accommodating to the competition’s pomp and circumstance.
Harrington says this is because there will be no expectation on Woods having to play all five matches. “Watching from the outside, he is more of a team man, and enjoys himself,” Europe’s captain added.
“He’s much more dangerous and he still has big presence on the tee.
“Anybody playing against Tiger has to beat him twice. You’ve got to play better golf than him – and then you’ve got to be big enough to handle playing better golf than him, which isn’t easy.”
‘Whistling Straits is not an advantage to the USA’
En route to our interview, Harrington bumped into a European Ryder Cup stalwart who he wants on his team this September. “Make it easy for me,” the Irishman implored as they passed in the players lounge at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The exchange is indicative of the all-consuming process of his captaincy. Harrington has already visited Whistling Straits – and liked what he saw.
“It’s tough to be an away captain,” he admitted. “I’d have been devastated if I drew the card that I had to play them on a Hazeltine or a Valhalla (where Europe lost in 2016 and 2008 respectively).
“This is a better golf course. It neutralises so many of the USA’s natural advantages.
“I definitely think it gives us a better chance in the US, to go on this links style golf course.
“I was there with a year to go [to the Ryder Cup] and in the three days I was there, the first day was 86 degrees and humid, the second day was the worst thunderstorm – and heavy rain and fog – and the third day was bobble hat cold and windy.
“So it could be anything and clearly playing the European Tour you are much more conditioned to deal with different conditions.”
When McIlroy almost got into a fist fight
Harrington knows the American crowds will not make it easy for his team. Four years ago at Hazeltine, there was plenty of abuse from home supporters directed at European players.
“I will tell my players to expect and accept a bit of booing and a bit of cheering if you hit a bad shot,” said Europe’s captain. “I saw Americans hit bad shots in Paris National [in 2018] and they were booed and jeered.”
What he does not want is spectators putting off players as they are about to make strokes. “We have to make a strong effort to make sure there is nothing said during the shot,” he said.
And he is keen to make sure the atmosphere does not boil over in the way that it threatened to at Hazeltine, when McIlroy was the centre of abuse being hurled by drunken American fans.
“One guy got at Rory on one of the walkways and got very personal,” Harrington recalled.
“And Rory wanted to go in over the ropes at him. I was standing about five yards behind Rory as a vice-captain.
“I’m thinking: ‘If he goes in and starts swinging, I’m going to have to go in and start swinging.’ And I’m thinking the two of us would be in there throwing handbags.
“And I’m thinking: ‘Oh no, this is the worst.’ I’m the minder, I have to go where he’s going and I’m thinking: ‘Please don’t do it.’ Thankfully nothing came of it.”
Harrington tells this story with a laugh and smile. This, after all, is someone who made his debut at Brookline in 1999.
Despite the all the controversy of that American victory, watched by the most hostile crowds the Ryder Cup has ever known, the Irishman still counts it as the best atmosphere in which he has played.
In that match, he won his singles against Mark O’Meara and thought it would be enough to see Europe home. It was the gutsiest of performances from a rookie at the time.
Harrington may not have been so keen to wade in to defend McIlroy at Hazeltine, but make no mistake – when it comes to the Ryder Cup he remains more than up for the fight.