European Ryder Cup team is ‘back,’ Padraig Harrington proclaims. He didn’t stop there
Discomforting clarity washed over Padraig Harrington two years ago, when Daniel Berger smoked his tee ball into the 18th fairway at Whistling Straits, during the final hole of the final match of the 2021 Ryder Cup.
Harrington was flanked out to the right, maybe 50 yards up the hole, watching alongside Jon Rahm’s caddie, Adam Hayes. When Berger’s low liner cut nicely into the short grass, Hayes expressed his dismay under his breath: “F—k.”
Harrington replied with a four-letter word of his own: “Ah, s—t”
Harrington, Hayes and the entire European team were hopeful it wouldn’t come to this, but it had. Harrington’s captaincy was bound to go down in record-breaking losing fashion. That Matt Fitzpatrick chunked his approach 10 minutes later into the death zone short of the green made it official. Berger would win the match and Team USA would win the Cup 19-9, the biggest blowout in modern Ryder Cup history.
There were tears shed by Team Europe that night. There were plenty of laughs, too, amid the bottles of red wine. Boy, does it seem like forever ago. A lot can change in two years. Let it be a reminder for four weeks from now, when the 2023 Ryder Cup comes and goes, and we look forward to 2025 at Bethpage Black. The Ryder Cup is always about that, too — looking forward by looking back. It’s why Harrington has been such an interesting figure in 2023. He was concurrently the most recent European captain, offering advice to this year’s man in charge, Luke Donald, but also a legitimate contender for a captain’s pick at the ripe old age of 52.
It wasn’t to be, although Harrington did receive a call from Donald — which Harrington called unnecessary — implying he was among those being considered. The fact that he was in the mix was a win for the media, given Harrington is one of the best — if not the best — talkers in the pro game. And now that the team has been finalized, Harrington has plenty of thoughts to share.
For starters, he thinks Team Europe is back. Back from wherever they were two years ago. “I think we’re back,” Harrington said at this week’s Irish Open. “I believe we’re back to the ’80s, the ’70s where our top players are actually the best players in the world. So I think the team is very strong. I think they’re very much in form.”
He’s not wrong about that. It doesn’t matter which ranking system you fancy — five of the 10 or 12 best players on the planet will wear the blue and yellow for Europe later this month. Then there’s Matt Fitzpatrick and Justin Rose, who would be just on the outskirts of the world top 10. Looking back, Harrington would go on to say, it seemed like Europe was on a “turndown” and Team USA, in that moment, was on the upswing. There’s ebb and flow to these RC teams, Harrington thinks. And he really likes where Europe is at.
As for the rest of the European roster, young guns Ludvig Aberg and Nicolai Hojgaard became captain’s picks this week over one player in particular, Adrian Meronk, whose emotions went “from shock to sadness to anger” when he received the news.
“I feel for Adrian Meronk,” Harrington said. “I think he’s a class player and is going to be a great player for the future, but unfortunately a lot of times at the Ryder Cup, when you’re sitting in the hot seat the last month or two, the guys who are challenging — it’s like being a leader on the leaderboard. The guys coming behind free up a little bit, and Nicolai obviously did great over the last couple of tournaments in order to steal the limelight.
“It’s tough for Adrian. There always seems to be one spot at the end that’s — I really feel for him. Lovely player, lovely kid, and he will play Ryder Cups in the future and do well anyway. But it’s tough when you miss out.”
Harrington knows all about missing out, having been passed up for a captain’s pick in 1997. He also knows what it’s like to make that pick. To make those tough phone calls. Harrington wouldn’t divulge the difficulty he had with making picks in 2021, but he did share what he thinks is most important when building a team. The Sunday singles matches session is always out there waiting at the end of a long, tiring week, where 12 points — 42.8 percent of the competition — is still on offer. Harrington wanted a roster of players who could be playing their best golf — like Hojgaard is now — to give some of the best players on the team a breather. Having to play all four matches entering Sunday singles — likely 60-ish holes in about 50 hours — is a serious undertaking. Harrington did it himself in 2004 and ’06. If a captain’s pick can step up while one of the horses rests, it’ll pay off in the Sunday sprint. At least that’s what Harrington thinks.
He also thinks any consternation around Shane Lowry’s involvement is misplaced.
“It’s strange seeing some of the part-time people who aren’t in the know saying maybe somebody else should have gotten picked, and they might have been named Shane,” Harrington said. “I’m going, ‘It’s not even close.’ If we were playing a small tournament in the middle of nowhere, maybe Shane wouldn’t be the right pick, but when it comes to the Ryder Cup, I definitely can trust in him.
“He is very good with the rest of the team. There’s no doubt about it. He can partner up. He can play foursomes and four-ball. In order to play foursomes and four-ball, you need to be a good ball striker, and that’s what Shane is.”
Lowry was one of the few bright lights that shined during that fateful captaincy for Harrington at Whistling Straits. His record that week reads 1-2-0, but it was his putt on the 18th hole that flipped a match late Saturday afternoon and gave the Euros some sense of optimism. That is, of course, to say nothing of the wicked animated reaction he gave when his match-winning putt dropped.
“I’d say [Shane] was actually holding back when it came to motivating. Yeah, I think there’s no doubt he’s going to be up for it, loving it, excited.
“But I’d say he’s experienced enough, as well. It’s very important the week of the Ryder Cup that you do have a level of balance and chill because to play five matches, it’s a lot of stress. If you get a player who’s ball of nerves and stress, again, he’s going to burn himself out before you gets to the singles.”
And with that, Harrington did something a bit shocking. He started to clam up. The words were flowing, sure, but the detail started to get short. Perhaps that’s because he started to get asked about how much he’s helped Donald ahead of this year’s Cup. Donald has routinely asked for little bits of info during various stages of the captaincy. When asked for the best advice he passed on, Harrington made his newfound silence clear:
“He’s asked me specific questions. I’m not going to give you the answers.”