Padraig Harrington remains the rare Tour player willing to critique Tiger Woods

By the time Tiger Woods tees it up at Royal Portrush in two weeks, he won’t have played any tournament golf in a month. Padraig Harrington thinks that’s a mistake. But this is hardly the first time Harrington has taken a controversial stance on Woods’ career — the 47-year-old Irishman remains one of the few players inclined to do so.

The latest analysis came at this week’s Irish Open, where Harrington took the lead with a first-round 63. He was asked about Woods’ chances at the Open and took a shot at his preparations.

“I personally think if you’re serious about winning the Open you’ve got to be playing tournament golf at least before it,” Harrington said. “You’d rather be playing links golf and being in a tournament than just [playing] on your own, so if you’re serious about trying to win the Open you should be playing at least one, if not two, of the events running into it.

“I was always mightily impressed when Tiger Woods would play in a major without playing the week before. I’d be a basket case if I didn’t play the week before.”

Woods has thus far kept his tournament prep quiet; he headed for a family vacation in southeast Asia straight from Pebble Beach. But he chose to skip any potential warm-up events — either the 3M Open on the PGA Tour or the Irish or Scottish Opens across the pond.

Proud Irishmen like Harrington have always tried to woo high-profile names to come join in the fun. Nor do they take kindly to snubs — tournament host Paul McGinley called it a “huge body blow” for Rory McIlroy to skip out on this week’s action. Other Tour players like Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood headed to Lahinch this week to begin their prep, while Rickie Fowler will headline next week’s Scottish Open field. But Harrington’s thoughts on Woods’ absence were pointed.

“Different personalities [are] completely different. But I do think links golf is different. You’re giving up some shots if you don’t play some links golf in the couple of weeks coming up to it. There’s no better way to understand your clubbing than when you’ve got a card in your hand and if you under-club there’s a little bit of pain and you remember it.”

Now, as ever, PGA Tour players rarely critique anything about Woods’ game or decision-making. Many grew up idolizing Woods, while those in Harrington’s generation competed with him — or tried to keep up. But Harrington’s candor has garnered headlines about Woods for the better part of a decade.

In 2010, when Woods returned to the game after his scandal-induced leave of absence, most peers deferred comment — but not Harrington. He offered a thoughtful, empathetic analysis of the challenges that come with being Tiger Woods.

“I think that everyone found him difficult to know,” he told the Guardian. “Tiger has always struggled to mix with the players purely because anywhere he goes people want things from him. I’ve even seen players asking him to sign this or sign that. Over the years it builds up. I would say that, not including rain delays, he would use one out of 10 locker rooms. It gets to the stage where he can’t say to players, ‘Hey, do you want to go for dinner?’

“In many ways for your own balance and for your own life, when you get off the golf course you just have to get away from the golf. If you just go straight back to your hotel, you become a prisoner in your hotel room and you are going to find trouble.”

Padraig Harrington sees a benefit to playing competitive links golf in the lead-up to the Open Championship.
USA Today

That was just the beginning. When Woods particularly struggled with chipping during one stretch in early 2015, Harrington called it “car-crash TV” and said he couldn’t bear to watch. But he later said he hoped that his own recovery from the yips could serve as inspiration for Woods. “You are never sure what others are thinking and I was a contemporary of Tiger in that we started our careers around the same time. So he could be looking at me thinking, ‘Paddy had a slump and he’s come back,’” he said.

In 2018, Harrington gave a wide-ranging interview to the AP at the beginning of Woods’ comeback; he was optimistic about Woods’ chances before most others were, saying he expected the former World No. 1 to have another major in his bag. But in classic Harrington fashion, this came by way of backhanded compliment, suggesting that any other player would win sooner, given Woods’ game. “If I turned around and hit the golf ball like Tiger Woods this week, I’d win because I’d love it,” he said.

In the same interview, he added that there was no doubt Woods had lost some intensity and also that he would have played better with better competition rather than settling for merely winning.

“He got very conservative after 2001 because he could win with a conservative game,” Harrington said. “Before that, he used to hit some spectacular shots, and I think you would have seen more of that if there were more good players around him to keep pushing him.”

Before this year’s Masters, Harrington picked McIlroy to win and acknowledged Woods would need to play his very best golf to contend. We know how that worked out.

“Back in the day the most famous statement about Tiger Woods was that he could win with his B-game – now he can only win with his A-game,” Harrington said in the lead-up to the Masters. “Tiger is not the player he was 15 years ago and you might say that his A-game now was his B-game back then.”

Harrington’s own career will always be inextricably linked with that of Woods. The defining stretch of his career — back-to-back majors at the 2008 British Open and PGA Championship — came with a dominant Woods out due to injury. The wins catapulted Harrington to a career-high world rank of No. 3.

From the other side, Woods has never had much reason to offer any counter-critique of Harrington. Most recently, he endorsed the Irishman as the European Ryder Cup’s choice for next captain. “The thing is, all the guys on both sides of the Ryder Cup fence respect Paddy,” he said last fall.

As for his 2019 Open Championship prep? Safe to say he doesn’t share Harrington’s concern.

“I’ve never been up to Portrush, and I’m looking forward to getting up there early and taking a look at the golf course and trying to figure out,” he said as he prepared to leave Pebble Beach. “I know that Florida will not be the same temperature as Northern Ireland. I’m not going to be practicing with any sweaters at home, but it will be nice to get to Portrush and get with it again.”

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