Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Playing the Paddy Card

I played golf with Padraig Harrington two weeks ago. There can’t be many golfers who have that on their CV, and it came completely out of the blue. One day I’m talking to the Portuguese Tourist Board, the next I’m lined up to play in the Portugal Masters Pro-Am alongside Ireland’s greatest golfer. With luck like that I should play the Lotto.
I flew over for two days – well you would, wouldn’t you – and stayed in Vilamoura where the Dom Pedro Golf Collection of five courses is located. One of those is the Arnold Palmer-designed Victoria course where the Masters is played. 
Our team of four met on the 1st tee. Dermot from Destination Golf, Michael from Golfbreaks.ie, myself and the man himself. Introductions were made and then Padraig looked at the scorecard.
“Lads,” he said, shaking his head, “I need 1s in front of these handicaps.”
The Texas Scramble type format preferred by the European Tour does not favour handicaps of 4, 4 and 8. Birdies and better are all that matter so from the best drive the high handicappers have the best chance of bringing in the scores… especially on par threes.
Padraig tees off on the 11th.
Was I star struck? Probably. I had all these questions I wanted to ask Padraig but once we were on the course those questions were crushed by an overwhelming desire not to make a fool of myself… which lasted until my second shot. I duffed it. Badly. And yes, you can duff a shot in a good way.
Watching Padraig hit the ball up close is something special – especially his irons and his fabled short game. From around the fringes he got up and down almost every time. He played the front nine with Pete Cowen, the renowned golf coach, in tow and one of our team sought a couple of tips from Pete along the way. The other member of the team asked Padraig for advice. I asked nothing… I know a lost cause when I see one. 
Padraig is so focused it’s almost scary. He would read our putts… all of them… on every hole. On the 6th he stopped us on the green and explained how to read a green by looking at the colour of the grasses. This wasn’t a five-second thing, it was more like two minutes. Then, when I said I was going to hit a putt at the hole with pace to negate the break, he shook his head at me (again). Why bring another variable (speed) into the process, he asked. All putts should be hit in the same way. He said the media commentators’ constant refrain of hitting putts with pace to avoid the break was nonsense.
I took a photograph of the beach-sized bunker in front of the par three 8th and he asked why I was taking the picture.
“That is the worst bunker out here,” he said without hesitation. His rationale was simple: it’s bad design when the only people who are punished by such a hazard are high handicap golfers. Aesthetics don’t come into it.
Ball in a bush. Padraig finds trouble on the par four 14th. He dropped
for a penalty and still made par.
Around the course he was constantly stopped for selfies or autographs or interviews. He smiled for each one and was out enjoying himself. Ronan, his caddie, was entertaining too, and our little entourage soaked up the heat (28 degrees) and had a great day.
Despite not having ‘1’s in front of our handicaps, we scored well and often. Our team score was a hefty 31 under par standing on the 18th tee. We all had a shot on the index four 373 metre par four and we reckoned 34 under would be in with a shout.
“What are you doing with that?” barked Padraig, as I stepped onto the 18th tee with my cherished 3 iron. The crowd of about 60 fans fell silent. The man has always spoken his mind.
I was going to play safe, I explained, so that the two big hitters I was playing with could give their drives a lash.
Padraig wasn’t having any of it. “The first two go for it and then the third plays safe if necessary,” he said. I skulked back to my bag and took out the driver. 
“I bet you wish you’d played that 3 iron now,” Padraig remarked as I sent my best drive of the day straight down the middle. 
Our team on the 18th fairway
We finished on 34 under but didn’t even manage 3rd place (-36). The winning score was 44 under (that’s 2.5 birdies on average per hole) and the amateur handicaps were 16, 17 and 17. 
After our 18 stiflingly hot holes, Padraig joined us for lunch. I should have written my questions down but I did manage to remember one:
“What’s your favourite Irish golf course?”
“Royal Portrush,” he said without hesitation.
Roll on the 2019 Open Championship.

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