One Irish player, Dublin-born Paul McGinley, the man who sank the winning putt for Europe in the 2002 Ryder Cup at the Belfry in England, has all but clinched his spot on the team. Meanwhile, Harrington, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell are aiming to make it an unprecedented four Irishmen on the squad of twelve. "There's a big party going on, and it is going to be hosted by Ireland," says McGinley. "I feel every single person in Ireland is going to be part of hosting that party. We're going to put on a great show, there's no doubt about that."
In the safety of his home office in Rathmichael, an upscale housing development in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains, Harrington, a member of the past three European Ryder Cup teams, is in full Ryder Cup mode. Even with the matches still months away, he points out that he has some ground to gain before the two-year qualifying race concludes at the BMW International Open in Munich, August 31 to September 3. "I've a lot to do to qualify, to get on the team," acknowledges Harrington, although he adds, "If all I did this year was to make the Ryder Cup team, it would obviously be a disappointing year." Harrington, more than anyone, knows what playing host to the Ryder Cup means to Ireland, especially the exposure the country will receive on television back in the States, the world's prime golf market. One of his sponsors is Failte Ireland, the national tourism board, and part of Harrington's obligation is to entice golf travelers to Ireland. It's a sell that is close to his heart, and one he firmly believes in.
If anything, Harrington feels that part of his challenge throughout 2006 will be to separate the hoopla surrounding the Ryder Cup from the week-in, week-out demands of the season. "As players, we'd never perform and make the team if we got involved in the hype," he says. "We have to play our own individual tournaments, one by one, and not get caught up. You have to worry about yourself and what you are doing and not worry about the bigger picture."
Ask Harrington about the appeal of an Irish golf vacation, and his answer is unequivocal. "The people—that's the number-one attraction," he says in his lilting brogue. "We've obviously got fantastic golf courses. We've great places to stay. We've great culture. We've great entertainment. But the best thing about Ireland is its people, the relaxed atmosphere. They're easygoing, friendly, helpful. It is what will make the Ryder Cup special for everyone who comes here. I think people coming to Ireland from the United States will find it amazing that the man in the street, not just golf enthusiasts, will be talking about the Ryder Cup and they'll be truly interested in it. You won't be able to get away from it."
Harrington believes the European team, coming off consecutive victories over favored U.S. lineups that included Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, will have its hands full this time around. "To be honest, we couldn't have picked a better venue for the Americans," Harrington suggests. "We've got a U.S.style golf course designed by Arnold Palmer; they are staying on-site in a magnificent hotel where many of them have stayed before. If we were going to pick a venue to negate home advantage, this would be it. And if you were going to pick a country to negate home-turf advantage, Ireland would be it—we Irish have quite an affinity with the U.S. I think a lot of the Irish supporters will support the European team strongly but will be very encouraging and respectful of the U.S. team. Many Irish golf fans are particular fans of the American players, of Tiger and Phil and many others. They will all get a good welcome."
Moreover, this likeable native of Dublin expects this year's matches to feature a more motivated U.S. team under the captaincy of Tom Lehman, known for his intensity as a player. "We'd have a better chance of winning this if we had lost the last Ryder Cup," Harrington argues. "The fact we won the last two gives the Americans the motivation to come out here and play good golf, to play strong. All the things Europe used in the past will be going for the Americans this time."
Although more than a few golf aficionados, both in Ireland and abroad, would have preferred to see the Ryder Cup played on one of the country's classic seaside links, such as Portmarnock or Ballybunion, Harrington describes the K Club as being well-suited for the event. "We have spectacular golf courses all over Ireland," he says, "but they are golf courses rather than venues, in that you need to have all the infrastructure that goes with a golf course to play host to the Ryder Cup. The K Club is ideal. The course is world-class, the hotel is world-class. It has always been a match-play-style golf course, and it is going to really blossom for the Ryder Cup."
Whether or not Europe retains the trophy, Harrington expects to party on the final night of the matches. To take nothing away from his competitive spirit or his national pride, he says, "I think it can be a great Ryder Cup without Europe winning—and that, as an Irish person, would be reason enough to celebrate."