Padraig Harrington’s eyes told of the “trepidation” long before he admitted to it at his Ryder Cup captaincy unveiling on Tuesday. Head cocked to the right, he peered to watch the Sky Sports’ montage of his 23-year career, avoiding the gazing gang of cameras at the back of Wentworth’s ballroom.
The individual triumphs – the three coveted majors, the 30 tournament wins, twilights tilts at the podium in Portugal and Palm Beach – rolled by without reaction. But as the reel wore on to Ryder Cup victories, the 47-year old greeted the room with a wide grin, a smile as nervous as it were happy, a realisation as angsty as excitable. If his left wrist weren’t wrapped in a cast, odds are it might have been twitching.
Accepting the the role as Europe’s travelling leader in 2020, Harrington admits with a sense of frankness, was a “daunting” decision. Even after such a formidable career that’s left him a popular figure both at home and abroad, the Irishman feels he is “putting his legacy on the line”. That if he leaves Lake Michigan’s juiced-up links in 20 month’s time without the trophy, there will forever be an asterisk which blights his career. A possibility he had to mull, let ferment, even mourn before he could confirm to the selection panel that he was ready to embrace the role.
“I had to be confident I wanted to do it,” he says. “I didn’t want to walk into this and be halfway through going: ‘I don’t know about this.’ It is a two-year job, a 20-month job and I had to sit down and say: ‘Am I prepared to do this?’ This is too important and too big a deal. If it ever was, it’s no longer a jolly.
“I don’t think I would have walked away [from the captaincy], but I had to get it in my head that I wanted it for the right reasons, not just because it was my time.”
That closure comes by way of relief because the Ryder Cup leadership has never offered wiggle room. Team Europe’s captaincy is passed down through the lineage of vice-captains, each grooming the next. After three successive stints in the European dressing room, twice victorious at home, once overseeing the disastrous drubbing at Hazeltine in 2016, for Harrington not take up the mantle now would be considered an abdication. Whether or not he was ready to accept it, there was only ever one right time.
Perhaps that’s why for someone of Harrington’s resolute obsession – even now, he insists, the broken wrist has just enabled him to focus full-time on putting – to openly air his doubts around a career-capping moment is as surprising as it is a mark of maturity. It’s well scripted now that to captain on away soil is to beckon defeat as fate. That is the prospect Harrington willingly walks into, but, after taking a thinly-veiled dig at Nick Faldo’s half-arsed efforts in 2008, promising over 600 days of painstaking preparation, it’s also something he wonders whether he could accept.
“These are the things that you have to sit down and think: ‘Can I do the job’.
“I have to understand that it’s very black and white in the Ryder Cup. This is not like being a football manager where I lose this week, I play next week and if I get the sack, I’ll get another team; hey, this is a great job. This is a one-time-only effort. One-and-done.”
Harrington also admits he will have to lose those stone “starey-eyes” that brought such success when treating blinking as little more than a nuisance at the US PGA Championship in 2008. Darren Clarke, who led Europe’s hapless voyage to Minnesota in 2016, was an emotion captain. Harrington is a pragmatist faced with the unfamiliarity of becoming “fuzzy and cuddly”.
“That’s what I’m trying to get part of me going into this. I have to get my head around that: Do I want to be that guy? I could easily have just walked away from this and said, ‘Oh, it’s not for me, I’ve had a successful golf career’.
“I’m good at hitting a little white golf ball, but does that mean I’m good at managing? Just because you’ve been a successful player, doesn’t mean you’re going to be. Some players require minding. Some players require an arm around the shoulder. Some players require a kick up the backside, get on with it. Do you really have the ability to manage one of the most important sporting teams going?”
The doubts will carry over hours as Harrington scrutinises the spreadsheets and days as he plays out the tournament in his mind. They will linger right up until tee-off on the last Friday of September 2020, as he ponders how to achieve what so few have managed. It is indeed a “daunting task” but as Harrington has always known, “he was the right man for the States.”