It's fitting that the British Open returns next week to Royal Lytham & St. Annes, the links course where, in 1996, a fresh-faced, 24-year-old rookie pro from Dublin, Ireland, named Padraig Harrington made his debut in golf's oldest championship. He already had won a PGA European Tour event a couple months earlier, but Harrington recalls his first Open Championship like a kid remembering his first Christmas.
With enthusiasm that fairly leapt through the phone, Harrington recently called his Open debut "awful." Of course, he meant the word literally, as in awe-inspiring, and he spoke about a week from 16 years ago as though it were yesterday and he was the three-time Walker Cup player who completed his first two rounds paired with Tom Lehman, who went on to win, and Mark McCumber, who tied for second with Ernie Els.
"It's right up there as one of the top experiences," came the familiar brogue, both rapid-fire and lilting. "It was a spectacular 36 holes. I played well, and on the 36th hole, I hit it in the greenside trap. I holed the bunker shot.
"I got so excited, I took the putter out of the bag. I've never ever been as excited on the golf course, the hairs on the back of my head stood up. It was just an unbelievable cheer went up when I holed it."
Here's one reason why the Open's return to the cozy confines of the links on the Lancashire Coast of England is so appropriate: the animated manner in which the 40-year-old Harrington spun through that little recollection from a career that includes 21 worldwide victories demonstrates that he is far from finished.
Here's another: Harrington, currently ranked No. 60 in the Official World Golf Ranking, is back on form and looks to be on the verge of completing a major championship comeback after three and a half years without a U.S. or European victory. The first European player to be voted PGA TOUR Player of the Year and the last TOUR member to have won three major championships in a 13-month span -- the 2007 and 2008 British Opens and the '08 PGA Championship -- Harrington is coming off a tie for eighth at the Masters and a tie for fourth at the U.S. Open.
Harrington's performance edges the Englishman Lee Westwood (T3 at the Masters and T10 in the Open) for best combined showing in the 2012 season's first two majors and is by far his strongest indication in the 14 majors since he was ranked No. 3 in the world after the '08 PGA that he could again be ready to be a factor at the highest levels.
Much has changed since Harrington's last defining major championship moment, when he eyed that soaring 5-iron shot to set up the deciding birdie on the 71st hole at Oakland Hills in the PGA. Perhaps his biggest and most difficult change was leaving long-time swing coach and father figure Bob Torrance to work with Pete Cowen on tightening his swing.
Harrington admits he sometimes misses Torrance's company. He says that although they speak to one another on occasion, "it's a difficult situation, there's no doubt about that -- it's awkward," and adds, "I suspect and I hope that Bob is happy to see me playing well."
Anyone who likes to see persistence and hard work rewarded -- and who enjoys hearing a golf tale well told -- has to be happy to see Harrington approaching the form that made him the best, and most oft-quoted, player in golf for a little more than a year. As to that side of it, perhaps only the Australian Geoff Ogilvy, and maybe Phil Mickelson when so moved, give as much thought and answer questions with as much depth as Harrington.
To be sure, golf is big business now, and time is currency to touring professionals. And, yes, Harrington was doing a conference call to promote the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open when he spoke to some European and U.S. golf writers late last week. But he stayed on the line until there were no further questions, and he was candid as ever about his game and his chances.
The progress he saw in the majors continued into the most recent weeks. His tie for seventh at the Irish Open at Royal Portrush Golf Club was encouraging. He is looking forward to the test on the big links golf course at Castle Stuart this week, honing his game for the Open, still needing the competition, but not too sure about a win.
"I don't need to win a tournament," he said. "I need to be in contention. I've done that the last couple of weeks and hopefully I can do that. Winning, if anything, winning The Scottish Open would make it harder the following week because winning takes a lot out of you. There's a big high to it and obviously a low follows it."
Now, it's understandable when players choose the cautious route, default back to media training and give the safe "I'm here to win the (insert tournament name)," to these touchy questions. Harrington simply tells it like it is, even saying that he'll resort to spin if it will help him get in the right frame of mind to win.
"If I win The Scottish Open, I would be telling you exactly the reason why it's going to help me win The Open," Harrington said with a hint of mirth. "We have got to create our own reality going into any tournament, and so whatever happens at The Scottish Open, come Monday morning, I'll be putting a positive spin on it.
"Even if I did win it, maybe I would be playing it down a little bit going into The Open. You know, we'd be telling you little fibs when it comes to the week of the tournament just to get our game in the right place."
Here's no lie: this guy is getting back into a winning mindset. He has only some fine-tuning left.
"I believe it's coming," he said. "It doesn't have to happen next week or the week after. I believe it's coming. I'm in good shape. To be honest, areas that I see are weaknesses in my game at the moment are good areas to be practicing on."
To those who like to see persistence and hard work rewarded, and who also enjoy hearing a tale well told, that's some very good news indeed.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.