SOUTHPORT, England – Padraig Harrington did not strut into Royal Birkdale on Thursday morning with the confidence and swagger that you might expect of a defending champion.
Soon after dawn crept over the west coast of England to reveal not a shred of sunlight for the start of the British Open, the holder of the claret jug made his way to the practice range with a grim expression and missing some of the bounce from his trademark jaunty gait.
A wrist injury that nearly kept him out of the tournament and the filthy weather combined to make sure that, in addition to several layers of waterproof clothing, Harrington also seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Yet after battling through the murk and mist for five hours and 22 minutes, the popular Irishman proved that his champion’s mentality was well and truly intact.
For Harrington, there was no luxury of easing his way back into the event he left with a famous trophy tucked under his arm 12 months ago.
It was not only nerve that got him through his playoff against Sergio Garcia in 2007. It was also bloody-mindedness and a refusal to quit.
And on an opening day in which the elements meant the Open could not be won but could, and was, lost by many, those qualities got him around Birkdale in fair shape.
The problematic wrist was no longer causing him pain, but it was tight and restrictive for the first couple of hours, leading to a number of sprayed shots to the right.
Harrington’s recovery skills were called into action on the front nine, after which things became easier, with the wrist loosening and the back nine not quite as demanding.
A round of 74 looks unspectacular on paper, but it was a fine way to begin his defense. Harrington and his playing partners, Retief Goosen and Justin Leonard. played into the nastiest of the conditions after teeing off at 7:58 a.m.
Even so, they were the best scoring group of the opening hours, with Goosen getting around in a superb one-over 71.
“I am just happy to have played and battled my way through,” said Harrington, his face reddened by the fierce wind. “I had a few twinges of pain warming up but I was committed to trying to deal with it. I haven’t played my way out of the tournament and there is still something to play for. The bad day conditions actually helped in the end. There was no time to think about anything and you had to be very committed.”
Earlier in the week Harrington had been coy about just how serious his wrist injury was, leaving the media and his opponents guessing as to whether he would take his place on the first tee.
“At a number of different stages I was very close to pulling out,” he added. “Especially on Wednesday when it really jarred.”
Harrington is not much of a fist-pumper and his feelings are generally kept close to his chest. But according to his coach and mentor Bob Torrance, nobody should be foolish enough to doubt his mental strength, physical problems notwithstanding.
Torrance, who recently launched a stern attack on what he perceives as the wayward practice habits of today’s crop of emerging youngsters, insisted that Harrington deserves every shred of success that comes his way.
“We started working at 10 a.m. one day a couple of weeks before the Open and we were still going at 10:30 at night,” said Torrance. “That is the level of dedication Padraig has to getting things right. He is not a great player by accident. It is because he goes about things in such a professional manner. That gives him a lot of strength to deal with tough situations.”
More of those tough situations will surely arise over the next few days, but for Harrington, one of the biggest hurdles has already been cleared.