Padraig swinging with a heavy heart

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:52 AM ET

Padraig Harrington's head is very much in the game, but his heart is an ocean away. Under normal circumstances, Harrington would be energized coming to a golf course where he has finished second the past two years, eager to take it to the next level at the most important tournament of the year to date. That sense of anticipation should have been heightened by the fact the pride of Ireland is just two weeks removed from his first North American PGA Tour victory.

But real life has a way of getting in the way of such manufactured moments.

"If it was up to me, I wouldn't be here," Harrington said yesterday. "But my dad said he wanted to have something decent to watch on the telly."

Nine days ago, Harrington's 72-year-old dad, Paddy, a former Dublin policeman and a cancer survivor, went to a local hospital for a checkup. The news was not good.

"No treatment," said Padraig, the two words hanging heavily in the air.

But if Harrington is here to provide the entertainment, then he was not going to disappoint his father. Not now. Harrington set aside his emotions and carved out a round of five-under-par 67 in the opening round of The Players Championship to stay in touch with the leaders.

"I'm trying to be neutral about (the family crisis) around the course and just do my job," he said.

"I've travelled a long way to do it. As I said before, I'd rather not be here. But the fact that I'm here means that I'm going out to do my job as professionally as I can."

Harrington, playing early, rattled off six birdies against one bogey and wasn't concerned about how far off the lead he would be by day's end.

"I'm just satisfied to be in the hunt right now," he said. "There's so much more golf to be played. With 54 holes to play, it only matters to be still in touch."

Harrington credits the atmosphere fostered by his father with his growth as a golfer and as an athlete. One of five brothers, he had to battle hard (and still does) for recognition among the people who matter most to him.

Asked to comment on his recently acquired status as one of the game's "elite players," Harrington said his upbringing forces him to keep his feet on the ground.

"You've got to understand, it's only until recently that they've stopped questioning whether or not I'm the best golfer in my family," he said with a laugh, then launched into an unvarnished self-assessment of the skills that have lifted him to No. 6 in the world rankings.

"I never had a golf lesson until I was 15 years old, but what I had when I was growing up was that my dad was a very competitive, very intelligent player, and he taught me the art of scoring, of getting the ball in the hole. He never once told me: 'This is how to swing a golf club,' but he did encourage me to score well. Even now, that's where my talents lie -- in thinking my way around the golf course and getting the ball in the hole."

"My father was a great Gaelic footballer, one of the best of his generation, I'm told -- though not by him. He played twice for Cork in the all-Ireland final. I had the best possible background for playing golf and for playing all sports.

"I've had tremendous self-belief from a very young age in everything I did, especially sports, and that was nurtured through my family. I couldn't have asked for better encouragement from my dad, who never pushed me or gave me the sense that he wanted to live his life through my sports. It was the sort of encouragement that came without any sort of pressure."

Harrington may or may not win this tournament and the humongous cheque that goes with it. The glory and the money are powerful motivators, but not so much this week. Not for Harrington. But there is not one bit of doubt that he'll bring everything he has to get it done. Just the way his dad taught him.

Millions will be watching around the globe, but he'll be performing for one set of eyes only.


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