If Padraig Harrington’s first impression of the task at hand in his U.S. Senior Open Championship debut were to be summed up in three words, they would likely be, “Bring it on.”
The three-time major champion, who turned 50 on Aug. 31, 2021, is in his first full season on PGA Tour Champions, and he didn’t hedge when asked about Saucon Valley Country Club’s Old Course.
“I’m impressed; it’s a good setup,” said Harrington, of the Republic of Ireland, whose accomplished amateur career included three berths on Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup Teams. “Heavy rough and very fast, undulating greens. It’s very traditional, which you expect of the USGA. It’s exactly on point.”
Interestingly, although Harrington never won a U.S. Open in 16 career starts, he logged his highest percentage of made cuts in any major (75 percent), and it was the championship that set him on the path to major success.
“I love it,” Harrington quickly averred when asked about the U.S. Open. “I’ve won The Open [Championship] a couple of times and I’ve won the PGA, but I always felt like the U.S. Open was the one that suited me the best. Links golf certainly suits me, but I really like the test, the resilience needed for the week at the U.S. Open.”
Harrington begins his week in earnest on Thursday at 7:52 a.m. EDT off the first tee, playing with fellow British Open champion Darren Clarke, of Northern Ireland, and Colin Montgomerie, of Scotland, the 2014 U.S. Senior Open champion. Harrington won back-to-back British Opens in 2007 and 2008 and the 2008 PGA Championship, edging out Sergio Garcia in two of the three.
Harrington is convinced that those victories – a run of three titles in a span of six majors – happened because of a tough loss he suffered in the 2006 U.S. Open, when he was among a quartet of contenders whose hopes floundered at the finish on Winged Foot Golf Club’s West Course.
“I was playing the best golf of my life on Sunday, and I thought I needed three pars to win,” said Harrington of the ending that is most recalled for Phil Mickelson’s mishaps on No. 18, but also included a closing double bogey by Montgomerie and two bogeys in Jim Furyk’s final four holes. That trio all lost to Geoff Ogilvy by one stroke, while Harrington settled for solo fifth after he bogeyed his final three holes. “When I bogeyed 16, I panicked, thinking I needed to birdie 17 or 18, and as it turned out, I didn’t.
“I three-putted 18, took three from 25 feet,” said the Dublin native, who has 18 victories combined on the PGA Tour and DP World Tour since turning professional at 25 after earning his accounting degree at Dublin Business College. “But I didn’t see it as a negative. It was the first time I played in a major where I felt like I could have won. [Sports psychologist] Bob Rotella came up to me afterward to console me, and I told him, ‘No, no, this is the greatest day of my life, because now I realize I can win majors without help from someone else.’ It brought a huge amount of confidence.”
Harrington had one previous close call, bogeying the final hole at Muirfield in the 2002 British Open to miss out on a four-man playoff eventually won by Ernie Els. But that one didn’t really count, to his mind.
“It was an outlier of a week,” said Harrington, who entered that final round in 2002 in a tie for 10th place. “I never really knew what went on, why I was there. At Winged Foot, it was all part of a plan and it went the way it should have gone; it wasn’t out of the blue. It was, OK, let’s keep doing this and it will happen.”
It didn’t take long. A little over a year later, he was hoisting the Claret Jug at Carnoustie in the first of back-to-back British Opens. He became the first player from the Republic of Ireland to win the British Open and he added a victory in the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills in 2008, three weeks after his second British Open win, at Royal Birkdale. It moved him to No. 3 in the world, behind only Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
He enters this week as a solid contender, with three runner-up finishes in his last five starts on PGA Tour Champions.
“I’m coming into these as the new kid on the block,” said Harrington, who finished tied for fourth in last year’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island behind Mickelson. “I’m in good form, so I’m trying to manage my own expectations. It feels like how I would have been trying to manage my tournament preparation back in my heyday, where I’d be going into these events, not hoping to win, but strongly expecting to be in contention.”
In fact, the genial Harrington admittedly might be champing at the bit to get going.
“My caddie gave me a bit of a lecture today about being grumpy, which is the way you get when you’re trying to organize yourself before an event that you feel you have a good chance in,” he said. “You’re kind of trying to get everything perfect before it starts, but you can over-try, overpractice, try and get it too perfect. To win, sometimes you just have to let it happen.”
It’s a lesson Harrington first learned many years ago at Winged Foot.
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of content for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org