Europe is so over. Yes, the Europeans won last fall's Ryder Cup,
but as a tour the European circuit has become a minor league,
little more than a feeder system for the decidedly deeper and
vastly richer PGA Tour. Individually, the Europeans are hurting
too. Players such as Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Bernhard
Langer, Sandy Lyle, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and
Ian Woosnam once dominated the professional game worldwide,
winning eight of the 12 Masters played from 1988 through 1999.
Now, a European hasn't won any major since Paul Lawrie took the
'99 British Open.
Take a look at the World Ranking. At the start of the 1992
season, the top four players in the world were all Europeans.
Today there's only one Euro among the top 10, eighth-ranked
Padraig Harrington, and with the prospects of the better
Europeans dropping faster than airline stocks these days, this
hardworking plodder from Ireland may be the only European who
stands a chance this week at Augusta.
"We're not really in form, are we?" says Harrington, agreeing
that many of his tourmates are struggling. He does, however,
think that Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland could also be a
factor in Augusta. "You can flip a coin as to whether Darren
putts well or not," Harrington says of Clarke's streaky short
game. "He's hitting the ball as long as anybody in the world
right now. I'd fancy his chances."
Aside from Clarke, who tied for sixth at last month's Players
Championship, and Harrington, who tied for second, the Euros are
in tough shape. Spain's Sergio Garcia, a three-time winner on
Tour at age 23, had been viewed as a potential rival to Tiger
Woods after finishing in the top 10 in all four majors last
season. This year he's a lost soul. In his most recent start, at
the Players, Garcia bogeyed two of the last three holes to miss
the cut by a stroke and, in the process, slipped to 11th in the
World Ranking. He began the year ranked fourth.
April 13, 2003
"If you have a few off months, you can drop 40 spots," says
Jesper Parnevik of Sweden. He should know. Parnevik was ranked
11th in January 2001 but has fallen all the way to 107th. "Sergio
was working on his swing all winter, and I know he still feels
uncomfortable with the changes."
Garcia has missed the cut in his last four medal events, shooting
a cumulative 13 over par. He also lost in the opening round of
the Accenture Match Play, to Kevin Sutherland. Yet at the Players
he told reporters, "I'm fine. Don't worry about me." The work
Garcia is doing on his swing, much like Woods's renovation in
1998, will take time and will likely lead to long-range benefits.
It's another area of Garcia's game, his putting, that's truly
troubling. Garcia ranks 112th in putts per green hit in
regulation and 166th in putts per round, and he reportedly is
practicing with a belly-putter. That's an ominous sign for
someone his age, and the fact is, almost every great player is a
Montgomerie, the next-highest-ranked European, at No. 20,
finished the 2002 season on a high. He was the star of the Ryder
Cup, going 4-0-1 in Europe's 15 1/2-12 1/2 victory over the
U.S., and shared a win at the season-ending Volvo Championship
with Bernhard Langer when the tournament was called on account of
darkness. Montgomerie also worked hard in the off-season,
strengthening his back by swimming countless laps. So far in
2003, though, his play has been dismal. He hit bottom at the
Players, missing the cut for the fourth time in five starts this
season. Distraught, Monty withdrew from last week's BellSouth
Classic and flew home to Surrey, England, for a week--a curious
way to prepare for the Masters.
Olazabal, a two-time winner at Augusta and the last European to
win there, has dropped from 38th to 57th in the World Ranking
this season. He has missed the cut in four of his seven
stroke-play starts, in which he has been 24 over par.
Clarke, whose play fell off somewhat after his victory over Woods
in the final of the 2000 Match Play, has quietly worked himself
back into form. He is 23rd in the World Ranking after a fifth at
this year's Match Play, a tie for 10th at the Nissan Open, an
11th in Dubai and the sixth at the Players. In five tries at
Augusta, however, Clarke has finished better than 20th only once,
in 1998, when he tied for eighth.
That leaves Harrington as Europe's best man. "I'd be happier to
have overtaken Sergio because he's Number 5 rather than because
he fell to 11th," he says. "It's better if all the Europeans are
doing well. I'd rather be Number 2 in the world and be the
second-rated European than be Number 8 in the world and be the
top-rated European. All I'm trying to do is get better."
Toward that end Harrington is the Vijay Singh of the European
tour. If you're trying to find him, check the practice range
first. Last Thursday, Harrington didn't finish his opening 74 at
the BellSouth until after 6 p.m. It had been a long day on the
hard-to-walk TPC at Sugarloaf, outside Atlanta. Nevertheless,
Harrington and his caddie, Dave McNeilly, went directly from the
final green to the practice range, where Harrington hit balls
until the light faded and the wispy clouds above turned a dark
amber. After that, he adjourned to a practice bunker. As he
spilled some balls in the sand, he turned to Notah Begay, who was
practicing nearby, and said in a delightful Irish brogue,
"Doon'cha have to loove dis game?" By the time Harrington
finished, it was difficult to see--and he had an early tee time
the next morning. (He would shoot a 74 and miss the cut by two
shots, which he wrote off to fatigue after contending all four
days at the Players.)
"Padraig is playing a lot better than Sergio the last few
months," says Thomas Levet of France, who finished 44th at the
BellSouth. "His putting is maybe the best in the world. His long
game is improving year after year. He has the weapons. He's a
The 31-year-old Harrington's rise has been tortoiselike. Although
he earned a degree in accounting from the Dublin Business School,
he devoted himself to golf 10 years ago and says his wish was to
become "a journeyman pro." Playing exclusively on the European
tour, he won for the first time in 1996, at the Spanish Open, but
didn't really take the measure of his game until 1997, when he
played in his first U.S. Open, at Congressional. The results were
depressing. He shot 75-77 and missed the cut by five. "I walked
away sure that I'd never make a cut at a U.S. Open," Harrington
says. "It was so difficult, and my game was nowhere near good
He stuck with it, though, winning five more times in Europe, and
he tied for fifth--albeit by 17 strokes behind Woods--in the Open
in 2000. Last year he proved that he was a player to be reckoned
with, tying for fifth at the Masters and then, at the U.S. Open,
tying for eighth after playing with Woods in the last group on
Saturday. "It was a very intense day, I have to say," Harrington
says of his Tiger test. "You get in that situation, and you doubt
the adequacy of your ability to swing the club, but it really
comes down to mental ability. I played well for two days. I
needed to keep it going for another two, but at least that said
to me, I'm capable of doing it."
The next big step came at the British Open at Muirfield, where
Harrington bogeyed the 72nd hole to miss the four-man playoff by
a stroke. "Not to take anything away from Ernie Els, but I walked
away thinking, This was my Open. I could've won it," Harrington
says. "That's a huge barrier crossed. I had a dreadful putting
week and was a shot out of the playoff. That gave me tremendous
confidence that, yeah, I can win a major."
It seems as if Harrington has always been on the cusp. He's had
a lot of close calls--16 seconds on the European tour. Now he
is also on the verge of a major life change. His wife,
Caroline, is expecting their first child. The due date is Aug.
18, the day after the final round of the PGA Championship.
"Everybody congratulated me," Harrington says. "All the players
kind of looked at me with a wry smile and said, 'Now we'll see
how you handle it on five hours' sleep.' I'm thoroughly looking
forward to it. Everybody said this will be the best thing in my
life, and I'm thinking, Gee whiz, my life is going pretty well
as it is."
Missing the cut at the BellSouth, Harrington decided, might be a
good thing going into the Masters, giving him time to regroup. He
could even laugh about an incident that occurred on the 8th green
during the second round. "I nearly walked on Olin Browne's line
and did a little quick-step over it," Harrington says. "Olin
reckoned that was my impression of Michael Flatley in Riverdance
and decided he was going to buy me the little tutu to go with the
nice two-steps I made going across the green. That's the thing
about golf: No matter how bad it's going, you have to laugh."
Caroline helps keep Padraig as stress-free as possible. She's the
planner, the one who takes care of the travel arrangements and
all the meals. "She's great," Harrington says. "I will travel to
many a tournament not knowing what city I'm in until I see a sign
in the airport."
So, he's asked before a practice session at Sugarloaf, do you
know where Augusta is from here? Harrington, holding a bucket of
balls in each hand, shrugs his shoulders and laughs. "No idea,"
he says. "None whatsoever. Whomever Caroline hired to take us
there will know the way." He looks up at the Georgia sky. "If I
had to guess, I suppose, knowing where Atlanta is on the map, I'd
say Augusta is to the north and east."
Learning that he is correct, Harrington climbs into a waiting
golf cart and heads for the other end of the range, a man who
knows exactly where he's going.
"Sergio was working on his swing all winter," says Parnevik, "and
I know he still feels uncomfortable."
"Padraig's long game is improving year after year," says Levet.
"He has the weapons. He's a complete player."