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Paddy Unplugged

Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington played his way into the weekend at the U.S. Open, then shared his thoughts on the PGA Tour and the future of golf

By Michael Bamberger

LOS ANGELES—For the first two rounds of this 123rd U.S. Open, Padraig Harrington, your reigning U.S. Senior Open champion, was paired with two other former PGA Championship winners, Keagan Bradley and Phil Mickelson. Mickelson turned 53 on Friday. Harrington is 51. Mickelson and Harrington have known each other forever. They are both world-class talkers. Plus-4s? Plus-5s? Something like that. As they made their way around the Los Angeles Country Club North course for two days, Harrington was struck by something: Phil was quiet.

“He’s quieter,” Harrington said. He had finished his second round and a post-round driving range session. He had made the cut. Mickelson had not.

I spoke to Harrington for a half-hour in the players’ parking lot on Friday afternoon. He never used the phrase off the record. “You should assume that everything is on the record,” he said. His reference was to Phil, to “scary motherfuckers,” to a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates,” words he said to my colleague Alan Shipnuck, words that changed the face of men’s professional golf, or at least accelerated change.

“I gotta say, Phil looked like he was here to play golf,” Harrington said. Mickelson remains one major short—the U.S. Open–of becoming the sixth player to complete the career grand slam.

“We didn’t speak about [golf politics] on the golf course at all,” Harrington said. “It’s too emotional for him to. And even for me. I’d want to be playing devil’s advocate with him, argue both sides of the story, just for the hell of it. So neither of us got into it, because it’s not gonna help our golf. It was very low key. So, yeah.”

Harrington was smiling. His teeth are refreshingly imperfect. His eyes are always alive. There was a thin layer of perspiration on his forearms, and his shirt was clinging to his chest. He looks as strong and fit as he ever has. Mickelson does, too. It’s amazing, really. Early 50s is the new late 30s. Something like that. But in your early 50s, kids growing or grown, you may think you have figured something out. Ten years later, you might find you know nothing about anything. And, as S. Smalley used to say on SNL, “That’s OK!”

Harrington told me, with discernible pride, that he is longer with the driver than Mickelson. Yep, they’re just like us.

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“He tries to hit it with no spin,” Harrington said. “I actually do the opposite.” He was going to show me some data on his phone, but he couldn’t get a connection. “My app keeps crashing,” he said. In their years of collaboration, it is unlikely that Ben Hogan ever said similar words to Herb Wind. One of them introduced the word pronate into the golf lexicon. That word is in the attic now. Spin rate will die a natural death, too. When Harrington and I made references to even par we used the word level. That was every day for him—he’s a Dubliner!—and quite fun for me. Tiger Woods, when he’s at a British Open, will use the word level.

Harrington had dinner last year with Woods and other Open winners in the Royal & Ancient clubhouse in St. Andrews. Greg Norman, a two-time Open champion, wasn’t invited, and Woods had something to do with that. Mickelson decided not to go. That’s where the LIV and Establishment Golf divide was then, 11 months ago. It was war. War is not good for professional golfers and other living things, but Woods did grow up in a take-no-prisoners house. His father won a Bronze Star. Tiger, his youngest son, won the gold medal as Champion Golfer of the Year three times.

Golf bends time and twists emotions. The winners of the career grand slam are Woods, who completed it in 2000, Hogan, Big Jack, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen, who did it in 1935, though nobody was using the phrase back then. Sarazen’s last Champions Dinner at Augusta was Tiger’s first. Mickelson’s first dinner was in 2005. That was the last time Byron Nelson was the dinner’s host. Ben Crenshaw took over the following year. Golf, golf, golf, golf, golf.

Every good golfer wants to play his way to Augusta and the Masters. One way to do it is to finish top-four in the previous year’s U.S. Open. That gets you an invitation to the following year’s Masters. A top-four finish at the British Open does the same. Harrington is eager to get back to Augusta before his career is through. “I think I’ll have a better chance at the Open,” he said.

The Open will be played next month at Royal Liverpool, where Rory McIlroy won his Open title in 2014. By implication, Harrington was noting his near-the-bottom standing through two rounds at LACC. Then he shot a third-round 67 and moved up the board. A good golfer is a realist, among other things. Harrington has known Rory, who grew up in a working-class family outside of Belfast, forever. McIlroy was at the Open Champions Dinner last year, the one that was so suddenly politicized by the billions of dollars a Saudi Arabian wealth fund had poured into the game.

In the history of the PGA Tour, few players have played better golf after becoming active in governance issues, going on this board or that one. (Paul Azinger will tell you about that.) I asked Harrington what he thought when he heard McIlroy, in a press conference last week at the Canadian Open, refer to himself as a “sacrificial lamb.”

“I thought Rory spoke very well,” Harrington said. “His press conference was lovely. And then there was that quote, and it was harsh to hear.

“I think Rory probably knows more than anybody. He’s more inside than most anybody. He obviously would know Jay [Monahan] well, and Jimmy Dunne. He and Jimmy would be very friendly.”

Monahan is the commissioner of the PGA Tour. Dunne is, like McIlroy, a member of the PGA Tour policy board. He is also the president of Seminole Golf Club, where he has logged a lot of rounds with Rory and his father, Gerry. Dunne, a Notre Dame graduate, bleeds Ireland, Buy American and the values of the PGA Tour. In March, at the annual and celebrated pro-member event at Seminole, Dunne made sure that no LIV players were invited. No Dustin Johnson, no Phil Mickelson, no Patrick Reed, all of whom are friends with Dunne. A few weeks later, during the Masters, Dunne, an Augusta National member and a fixture on the range and in the caddie clubhouse during the tournament, sent a text to Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the fund that finances LIV, that led to last week’s golf-shattering news.

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“The Tour made a business decision that was in the best interest of the Tour,” Harrington said. “You know, we all want to live in a free market. In a free market, if we want them to stop trading with us, we have to stop trading with you.” Not, in Harrington’s view, a good situation. “What is happening is what we want from a free market. So, yeah.”

I asked about the moral implications of the Saudis as a partner with the PGA Tour.

“The moral side,” Harrington said. “We all want change in the rules and regulations and laws in Saudi Arabia. But I keep saying, Inclusion. Look at this tourist area they’re building. Look what they’re trying to do. I’ve seen the changes in Dubai over the past 25 years. The Saudi culture is going to be affected massively by all this tourism coming in and everything. Their country’s going to change. Hopefully we’ll look back in 25 years and say, ‘Oh God: I can’t believe the Saudis used to have those laws.’”

We talked about money. You can’t talk about golf these days without talking about money.

“I cannot believe anybody, in any shape or form, would think that there was a single player on the PGA Tour who thinks they should be playing for more money,” Harrington said. “For every PGA Tour player, this is the best time of their whole lives. They’re playing for more money against weaker fields.”

He laughed. Charlie Howell couldn’t beat you in a PGA Tour event anymore because he is no longer playing the PGA Tour. Maybe that will change. Right now there are more maybes than anything else in the game. That’s why last week’s press releases and the rest seemed so rushed. There are 14 questions for every answer. Something like that.

“There wasn’t a single person who stayed behind, who wasn’t thinking, gee, we need more money,” Harrington said. “Not a single person. So why, why would the PGA Tour make this deal?”

“I feel stumped,” I said.

“Because they were going to lose money!” Harrington said. “It has to be. The PGA Tour was obviously in financial peril, not the other way around. They were either losing TV contracts and maybe lawsuits. And those lawsuits would cost you millions. So that’s a very easy conclusion to reach.

“I have 100 percent confidence in Jay, that he’s acting in the best interest of every Tour member. CEOs don’t tell shareholders what they’re doing when they’re in the middle of the negotiations. Right? To me, it looks like Yasir went easy on the Tour, because he likes golf.”

I don’t have the skill set or knowledge to unpack all that. What is the Saudi endgame here? Is Yasir Al-Rumayyan trying to join Jimmy Dunne at Seminole and Augusta National? It’s possible. Does Al-Rumayyan’s friend and leader, MBS his own self, want to see Donald Trump become the next president of the United States? You can answer that question for yourself. Trump was an easy president for the Saudis to do business with. LIV Golf embraced Trump after the PGA Tour rebuffed him. Al-Rumayyan and Trump wore MAGA hats as they stood together at a LIV event at Trump Bedminster last year. It’s hard to think of our golfing gods as high-priced pawns. It’s also hard not to think of them that way.

Harrington, as much as anybody in the game, seems to grasp the whole big messy picture.

I asked him if he would ever want to be the PGA Tour commissioner. He spends more time in the United States than in Ireland. The first commissioner, Joe Dey, was a USGA ethicist. The second, Deane Beman, was a former Tour player and a scrappy businessman. The third, Tim Finchem, was a crafty lawyer and political operator. The current one, Jay Monahan, is a marketing expert. It’s a wild thought, but you could see it. Harrington’s locker at LACC is next to Ronald Reagan’s, preserved forever.

“I could only be a dictator,” Harrington said. “A benevolent dictator.”

With that, he went to the fitness trailer, his work not yet done.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at [email protected]

2 thoughts on “Paddy Unplugged”

  1. Love the way you focus on the behind the scenes stories…this one is so interesting. Anyone who has followed golf for a long time knows that Padraig Harrington is a voice well worth listening to! Thanks.

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