PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. – Padraig Harrington trudged into the Riviera clubhouse on Friday afternoon looking defeated and exasperated. To the casual observer it must have looked as if the usually chirpy Irishman was heading out of the Northern Trust Open filled with disappointment and frustration following a dreadful round.
Fortunately for fans of the world's eleventh-ranked golfer, appearances were deceptive, and Harrington will be back to compete for the $1,116,000 first-place prize over the weekend, sitting six shots behind leader Phil Mickelson and in a tie for ninth place.
It was a heavy defeat that caused Harrington's slumped shoulders and pained expression, but it came at the hands of a severe flu virus, rather than any of his Riviera rivals or the course itself.
With eyes reddened and nose streaming, the 36-year-old was keen to get back to his hotel for a night of rest and medication, but that does not mean he can be written off over the final two days. Harrington produced some fine play Friday in a second round that kept him in contention amid Mickelson's dominance.
An extraordinary birdie on the par-4 No. 7, after clanking his tee shot off a tree and sitting in the rough 210 yards away, was appropriate reward for the way Harrington battled his discomfort.
If, as he suggested earlier this week, the main focus of this tournament is to prepare him for Augusta, then he could hardly have wished for a better two days.
"I did struggle with this flu," he said after his second straight round of 69 left him four-under. "I am fighting all the time out there which is not making it too easy.
"Now I have got two days to work on the focus. Now I have to keep going forward instead of standing still over the next two days."
Harrington's comments were straightforward and uncomplicated, much like the man himself. Strange as it may sound, when he talks about remaining unaffected by his breakthrough major triumph in the British Open last year, you tend to believe him. He is a man whose calm outward disposition conceals a steely nerve and a fierce desire to win. That hunger was in place prior to Carnoustie, and it shows no sign of abating.
"Winning it has not really changed me," he insisted. "It made no difference really. It might make some difference if I was in the hunt at the end of the week of a major but I am the same person, the same golfer. No better, no worse."
Perhaps that is just as well. If Harrington needed any reminding that one glorious hoisting of the claret jug does not guarantee future success then it came in the form of his playing partner Todd Hamilton.
Hamilton, the 2004 champion at Royal Troon, won just $274,928 in prize money in 55 events spread over 2006 and 2007, but even then has suffered few weeks more ignominious than this one, in which he capped off an 11-over scorecard with a horrible whiffed chip on the final hole.
There is little chance of Harrington suddenly plummeting into the ranks of the also-ran though. His sights are set far higher, upon the game's elite and more major titles.
Harrington keeps his extensive list of targets for 2008 to himself, but it is fair to say they are ambitious and lofty.
"I set my goals every year, plenty of goals," he said. "It is very important to have clear goals. I never tell anybody about them. Why would I let you judge me on my goals?
"Of course I am focusing on the majors because that is the nature of our game. It is all about doing your best in the majors and being ready for it. That is what would make me happy at the end of the year, if I feel I have done well in the majors and given them a good run.
"But I just look after myself. I don't really see any point in judging myself against other players. It is irrelevant whether you include yourself with other people or not. Just do your own thing and judge yourself against yourself. Are you improving? That's all that counts. You can't control what other people are doing."
With that he slumped off, to meet his delightful wife Caroline and, presumably, to track down the nearest pharmacy.
Feeling no healthier, but no less determined either.