The world No 1 has found himself in a position where he’s having to choose either Team GB or Ireland for golf’s return to the 2016 Games in Brazil and hinted recently he might not go at all due to the grief he’d likely get one way or the other.
Speaking in the build-up to this week’s £1.6 million Volvo Golf Champions event here on the east coast of South Africa, Harrington claimed it was unfair on McIlroy to find himself in such a predicament, but warned it would be detrimental to golf’s return to the four-year sporting extravaganza if it didn’t feature the top players. “I have massive sympathy as an Irishman and massive sympathy more so as a sportsman,” said the three-times major winner of the situation. “No sportsman should have to make that decision. That’s it, straightforward – nobody at 23 years of age should be asked to make that decision.
“And the reality is there have been people in politics for the last hundred years who have tried to negotiate that and haven’t been able to. So why would you ask a 23-year-old just because he’s going to hit a little white golf ball?”
Harrington, who has seen McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke all join him in the major-winners’ circle since breaking his own duck at Carnoustie in 2007, added: “It’s very unfortunate and I think it is unfortunate in the sense that it means a great deal for golf for him [McIlroy] to play. It’s a very big deal because golf is only on a trial period in the Olympics.
“We have two runs at it and, as golfers, we do have to perform and put our best foot forward, so it would be nice if the world number one is there and he’s supporting the event. It’s an extraordinarily difficult decision. We need our best players to play in the Olympics to show that golf is serious in the Olympics.”
Hinting the matter should be taken out of McIlroy’s hands, Harrington continued: “It would be nice if the Olympic council would say, ‘here we go, you can play in the Olympics’, or make the decision on their behalf. There’s going to be no winner out of this one whatever.”
On a happier note, Harrington, renowned for using 50 words when ten would probably do, made a New Year’s resolution to start offering “yes” and “no” answers to the media but failed at the very first question.
In fairness, it was a good one as the Dubliner was reminded that he’d made his European Tour debut at Durban Country Club, venue for this week’s event, in 1996. Despite admitting he’d performed “terribly” from tee to green, the Tour School graduate at the time finished in a tie for 49th place in an event won by South African Wayne Westner.
Harrington recalled how he’d been in Nairobi for a Challenge Tour event when he got a phone call to say a spot had opened up in the European Tour field. He left himself badly dehydrated by spending “ten to 12 hours” practising on the Wednesday and had clubs in his bag that were “four degrees too upright” as they couldn’t be manipulated back then as they are now.
Despite all of that, however, he said he knew straightaway that he’d found where he wanted to be in life, having well and truly proved himself as a top European Tour player since then by racking up career earnings of more than £23 million.
Delivering the punchline of his tale from 17 years ago, Harrington said: “I rang home and said: ‘Mum, I’ve just finished 49th, I won, £1,480 and I couldn’t have played much worse. They are just giving it away!’
“Back then, £1,480 was a fortune. The most I had ever won before that was about £300. So it gave me great momentum, because, having played poorly from tee to green, I walked away from the tournament thinking: ‘Wow, I can play a lot better and yet I still made the cut and I still made some money.’ So I really felt like I belonged.”
Like Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke, Jose Maria Olazabal Retief Goosen and Thomas Bjorn, Harrington has earned a spot in this week’s select field as the winner of ten or more European Tour titles, the remainder of the line-up all having tasted success on the circuit last year. His playing partner in tomorrow’s opening round will be Scott Jamieson, who is bidding to complete a Durban double after winning the weather-reduced Nelson Mandela Championship elsewhere in the city last month.
Rain is again forecast but, with no cut, Harrington sees the event as perfect to get his 2013 campaign up and running.
“I really do like starting a tournament where there’s no cut and, no matter what happens this week, I’m going to get four rounds,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve avoided coming here in the past because it’s the South African players’ summer and they are all ready to play and you’re a little bit rusty. You shoot a couple of 72s, don’t play too badly but still miss the cut. So you spend another weekend on the range, which is not really helping things, because you need a card in your hand.
“Hopefully I can get off on the right foot and set myself up nicely for a great season ahead.”