DURBAN, South Africa -- Seventeen years after making his professional debut on the European Tour in the FNB Players Championship, Padraig Harrington returns to Durban Country Club for this week’s Volvo Golf Champions. The first event of 2013 on the circuit features an elite field of 35 players who among them have won 14 majors and 234 European Tour titles.
Harrington – along with Darren Clarke, Retief Goosen, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and Thomas Bjorn – is in the field as a current Tour member with more than 10 career victories. They will compete for the $2.6 million prize fund against 28 European Tour champions from 2012.
Despite playing “terribly” from tee to green that week, the three-time major champion finished in a tie for 49th place in a tournament won by Wayne Westner. That modest result helped convince Harrington he belonged on the European Tour.
“I rang home and said, ‘Mum, I’ve just finished 49th. I won £1,480 pounds (about $2,400) – and I couldn’t have played much worse. They are just giving it away!,” he laughed. “Back then, £1,480 was a fortune. The most I had ever won before that was about £300 (about $480).
“So it gave me great momentum, because having played terribly from tee to green, I walked away from the tournament thinking, ‘Wow, I can play a lot better and yet I still made the cut, and I still made some money,’” he said. “So I really felt like I belonged.
“Whereas, if my first tournament was at, say, Wentworth, I might have shot 72-73 to miss the cut, been 20 shots behind the leader and felt like I should never go and play with the pros again because I wasn’t good enough.”
Fast forward almost two decades, and Harrington has racked up 14 titles and accrued more than $30 million in career earnings on the European Tour.
His Tour last title came at the 2008 PGA Championship, and since then Harrington has struggled to recapture the form of his halcyon days. But the Irishman won the PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda last fall, has high hopes for the 2013 campaign, and is itching to return to competitive action after six weeks away from the game.
“I really do like starting with a tournament where there’s no cut, so no matter what happens this week, I’m going to get four rounds,” he explained. “Sometimes I’ve avoided coming here in the past because it’s the South African players’ summer and they are all ready to play, but you’re a little bit rusty.
“You shoot a couple of 72s, don’t play too badly but still miss the cut. So you spend another weekend on the range, which is not really helping things, because you need a card in your hand,” he added. “Whereas this week, if I play well I have a chance of winning the tournament – and even if things don’t go well for me on Thursday and Friday, I still have Saturday and Sunday to find some form.
“If you shoot 75-75-75-65, I guarantee you’re feeling pretty good about your game,” he said. “Whereas if you shoot 72-72 and miss the cut in a normal event, you’re feeling miserable. So it’s huge getting that extra couple of rounds in, no matter what.
“I think a lot of players know they will get a nice start to the year and get some momentum going,” he concluded. “Hopefully I can get off on the right foot and set myself up nicely for a great season ahead.”