Europe Hangs Hopes on Harrington

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His runner-up finishes outnumber his victories, 7-1, over the past two years. Hes fighting injuries from his neck to his ankle. And he doesnt even know who his opponents are.
 
But come Sept. 27, he may be Europes strongest hope in returning the Ryder Cup to the continent.
 
Padraig Harrington has asserted himself as the best fulltime player on the European Tour. Hes risen from 24th in the Official World Golf Ranking at the start of the 2001 season to eighth. Only Sergio Garcia (fifth) is a higher ranked European-born player.
 
Since his rookie season in 1996, Harrington has also made constant strides up the Order of Merit (money ranking) ladder. Last year, he finished second in the money race to Retief Goosen.
 
Unfortunately, second place is almost second nature to the 31-year-old Irishman.
 
Harrington finished second six times in 2001, twice in 2000 and five times in 1999. Since turning pro, the overall tally is: four wins and four times as many runner-ups.
 
Ironically, it was back-to-back second-place finishes that helped him qualify for his first Ryder Cup, in 99.
 
He went 1-1-1 in his debut at Brookline, earning one of only three European singles victories on that disastrous Sunday, when the Americans overcame the largest final-day deficit in tournament history to steal back the Cup.
 
This go-around, Harrington didnt need a 12-round decision to win a spot on the team. He finished second ' go figure ' in the qualifying process. And judging by his results thus far this season, hell be a lock for years to come.
 
Although he hasnt won in 2002 ' and finished second only once ' Harringtons accomplishments have been of major caliber.
 
He tied for fifth in the Masters; tied for eighth in the U.S. Open; tied for fifth in the British Open; and tied for 17th in the PGA Championship.
 
One of the lasting images from Hazeltine is the site of Harrington in a headlock. Padraig strained his neck 10 minutes before the start of his third round, and had to undergo a quick set of stretches. His trainer grappled his neck, twisted and turned. It looked like Harrington had stolen range balls and the ranger was applying the sleeper to get him to confess.
 
More serious, however, Harrington twisted his ankle at the Dutch Open, and after eight weeks he has yet to fully recover.
 
I was very happy with the way I was swinging for a couple of weeks, but it changes what you have to work on, Harrington said at the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational.
 
It will be fine. Today, tomorrow, a week from now, I dont know when, but it will be fine ' definitely by the time of the Ryder Cup.
 
He is undergoing tests this week on both his neck and back.
Health issues aside, Harrington said hes been mentally prepared to play the Ryder Cup since he was a teen.
 
It was much tougher playing in front of 10-20,000 people in the Walker Cup at 18 (years old), he said.
 
The only thing at the Ryder Cup which is different is the length of the intensity; on Tuesday, when you practice, there is pressure.
 
Its not a pleasant feeling when youre having it, but the further away you get from the Ryder Cup, the more you think you enjoyed it. Its like a roller coaster or bungee jumping ' as its actually happening youre thinking, Why am I doing this? But when its finished you think, Oh, that was great.
 
Harringtons Ryder Cup introduction came in 1985, when Europe won the event for the first time in 28 years.
 
I was 14 at the time, and 14 years of age is just about the time I was starting to take golf seriously, so, yeah, it was a big deal, he said. I can remember Sam Torrance, obviously, holing the winning putt, but I also remember Christy OConnor, Jr., hitting that 2-iron ' beating Fred Couples, which was amazing in a small country like Ireland, you know, for Christy Jr. to beat Fred Couples.
 
Coincidentally, Torrance is now Harringtons Cup captain, and The Belfry, which hosted the 85 event, is this years venue as well.
 
Harrington can name the site and his captain. But three years removed from the last Ryder Cup, and a full year since the teams were finalized, hes hard-pressed to tell you the 24 participants.
 
While playing in the PGA Championship, Harrington struck up a conversation with one of his playing competitors over the first two days. He started talking about the Ryder Cup ' wanted to know if his future opponent was psyched about making his debut. He was talking to Chris DiMarco, however, who didnt make the American team.
 
That shows you how much I know about the Ryder Cup, Harrington joked. If I sat down and thought about it, it would take me a while and I might get the 12 names (on the U.S. team). Im sure some of us couldnt even name our own teams.
 
Like most everyone else, Harrington is unwavering in his belief that the Cup should have been postponed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States.
 
Everybody is going to be thinking about September 11th, and rightfully, too,' said Harrington. 'I dont think its going to affect the play of the golf and I think it might add to the sporting occasion.
 
Its going to be there and its going to take equal importance, but its not going to overshadow the event.
 
With a bad-back Colin Montgomerie 50-50 for the matches and four rookies on the team, the Europeans will be looking for leadership. Bernhard Langer, making his 10th appearance, will be the elder statesman in the locker room, but it will be up to the likes of Harrington to lead the team on the course.
 
This time, second place will not suffice.
 
Full coverage of the 34th Ryder Cup Matches