Roller coaster around Lahinch

Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington will have something over all other competitors at Lahinch this week — he’s a former Irish Open champion, while he’s also a champion around the North Clare links writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh.

Padraig Harrington at the 2018 Dubai Duty Free Irish Open in Ballyliffin. ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry

AS Padraig Harrington tees it high and lets it fly in Lahinch this week, you can be sure there will be plenty of hardy golfing annuals from North Clare behind the ropes who will well remember the great champion’s roller-coaster around the links back in the days when he was making his way in the game.

They couldn’t forget, because the 2020 Ryder Cup captain was box-office — the steel and fortitude that would make him a great champion and three-time major came to the fore in Lahinch, just as the never-say-die did too, while the headline writers had some controversy thrown into his golf bag too.

In many ways a screen-writer working on a script couldn’t have penned a better storyline of a champion’s relationship with a golf course than the one that unfolded in real life on this links— there was a course record, there were epic battles, there were rows and rancour, there were wins and losses, before it was all bookended with the happy ending of a brilliant victory that was a fitting denouement to his stellar amateur career.

Harrington was a three-time Walker Cup player in 1991, ’93 and ’95, with his haul of three out four points in Royal Porthcawl in the final year inspiring Britain and Ireland to a victory over a Tiger Woods led American team.

He was a two-time St Andrew’s Trophy winner in 1992 and ’94, while other notable victories came in the West of Ireland Championship in 1994 and the Irish Amateur Open and Irish Amateur Close titles in ’95.

That final championship victory came in Lahinch, when Harrington’s bitter sweet relationship with the jewel in the crown of Clare golf had its very happy ending.

“Padraig ends amateur career on a high note,” declared The Irish Independent headline after that Irish Close victory — that it was hugely significant as he prepared to make the giant leap from amateur  to pro ranks was beyond question.

All because, for a few years, despite producing some brilliant golf around Lahinch, it seemed as if Harrington just couldn’t close it out. He was a contender and among the favourites every time he teed up, but never a winner.

HARRINGTON’S first coming to Lahinch was in 1990 for the South of Ireland — then just 19 the Stackstown player claimed the scalp of 1977 champion Liam McNamara and 1983 Irish Close champion Tom Corridon en route to the semi-final where he was edged out by one hole by Darren Clarke, who subsequently romped to victory over Jim Carvill in the final.

Padraig Harrington after winning the 1995 Irish Close at Lahinch.

The following year he reached the same stage, beating Corridon once more, as well as two-time champion Mark Gannon, while in one of the earlier rounds burned up the course when being six under par after 11 holes in his 8/7 win over Johnny Dixon. However, his hopes were again dashed at the penultimate round stage, this time by Paul McGinley who scored a 4/3 win on his way to lifting the title for the first time.

1992 and ’93 could be described as fallow years — he was beaten by Pat McGilloway and Michael O’Kelly at the fifth round stage in both years, but in ’94 and ’95 back came the Stackstown player to produce brilliant golf in both years.

He was firm favourite in ’94 having won the West of Ireland title in Rosses Point, but was edged out in great duel by David Higgins.

“Sport can be cruel at times,” reported Charlie Mulqueen in The Cork Examiner. “This was an occasion that neither golfer deserved to lose as they stared a remarkable 13 birdies and an eagle between them over 18 holes.”

“A single putt was all that lay between the two best young golfers this country has seen for a long time,” noted Colm Smith in the Irish Independent. “That putt fell for 21-year-old David Higgins on the last green. When one considers that Padraig Harrington went around in four under 68 and still didn’t win, he has every reason to feel disappointed.”

There was more disappointment in 1995, but only after some more brilliant golf. In this third and fourth rounds on the Monday Harrington hit 11 birdies in the 22 holes he played to record 5/4 and 7/6 wins, but it was his quarter-final win over Brian Omelia that attracted most attention that week.

‘Storm at the South,’ blasted The Cork Examiner headline;  The Irish Independent went for ‘Angry Harrington Erupts at Lahinch’.

He was angry, blasting the stewarding after he rolled in an eight foot putt on the last to win by one hole: “It was an absolute disgrace out there,” he said. “There were a few kids who consistently jeered and booed my bad shots.

“At the fifth I realised I had missed the green with my second and said so. Straight away, a kid only a few yards away hissed yes to my face and punched the air with delight. I don’t blame the kids, they are rotters who don’t know any better, but I am very angry that they weren’t controlled by the officials and referees,” he added. 

That anger then turned to disappointment when he endured another final defeat, this time to Jody Fanagan, when after being three up with seven to play he was reeled in by the Miltown player who beat him on the 18th.

So ended Harrington’s six-year search for a South of Ireland title, but back he came for more two weeks later for the Irish Close Championship — his final championship as an amateur before the Walker Cup and the professional ranks beckoned.

This was it.

“There is little doubt that the main focus of attention will centre on Padraig Harrington, the 23-year-old Walker Cup player from Stackstown,” mused Charlie Mulqueen in The Cork Examiner. “Few need to be reminded that he has lost five of his six final appearances in major tournaments.

“Given those circumstances, it is only nurtural that he yearns to leave amateur golf with the biggest domestic prize of all under his belt. I will be very surprised if he isn’t in it at the death,” he added.

He did that and more: ‘Harrington as hot as the weather,’ said the Examiner after he led the qualifiers with a five under par course record of 66 and then navigated his way through the top half of her draw with wins over Mick McGinley, Noel Pyne, Enda McMenamin, John Morris and Noel Fox to reach his third finaland 3rd high course record.

After defeats to Darren Clarke in Baltray in 1990 and to David Higgins in Portmarnock in ’94 it would be third time charm; third time charm in Lahinch too after those back-to-back South of Ireland defeats.

It couldn’t have been scripted better.

In many ways Richie Coughlan from Birr didn’t stand a chance — it was finally Padraig Harrington’s time at Lahinch.

Lahinch’s signature hole, the famous ‘Dell’ proved the turning point. The 21-year-old international Coughlan was two up going into it after winning the second and fifth with birdies and then put his drive to eight feet on six, while Harrington was off the green.

But instead go going three down Harrington holed from off the green, Coughlan missed and the game turned. Harrington also won the next three holes to turn two up and from there eased home to a 3/2 win.

“It couldn’t have come at a better time,” he gushed.  “It’s great to win. There could not be a better way of going pro. There is a great feeling of relief for after losing so many times in finals, negative thoughts are sure to come through. You could not have scripted this one.”

Twenty four years on Harrington returns to Lahinch having done it all.

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