Padraig dresses up hopes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 December, 2004, 12:00am

'This is the biggest tournament I have played in where I'm defending a title and I want to do just that'

The last time Padraig Harrington was spotted at Fanling, he was sporting a bright red jacket. Yesterday, the Omega Hong Kong Open defending champion returned to the scene of his 2003 triumph wearing the Chinese-styled apparel, which is traditionally given to the winners, and declared that he wanted to win a second one.

'I came back to defend my title,' said Ireland's Harrington, looking forward to the start of the US$800,000 Open tomorrow. 'This is the biggest tournament I have played in where I'm defending a title and I want to do just that. I played well last year and that was a good reason to come back.'

His warning to the rest of the 191-strong field was not lost on fellow European Ryder Cup stars Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain and England's David Howell, who were also present at yesterday's press conference. They too covet the red jacket and the winner's purse of US$133,330.

'We will all try to get the red jacket off Padraig,' smiled Hong Kong debutant Howell. The Englishman has a tall order in front of him before he has to give the tournament tailor his chest requirements. Howell has yet to win a tournament this year.

That's not the case with Jimenez, a two-time victor in Asia and Europe's most prolific winner this year. 'David says he wants the red jacket. I want it too,' said Jimenez, who has won four titles in a stunning season and played a huge role along with Harrington and Howell as Europe raced to a record victory over the United States at Oakland Hills in the Ryder Cup.

'If they want it so badly, they are welcome to have it for the next four-and-a-half days. But on Sunday afternoon I would like it back,' joked Harrington. The Hong Kong Open is the second event on the 2005 European Tour and the penultimate leg of this year's Asian Tour.

Winning the red jacket is purely symbolic according to Harrington. Since pipping South African Hennie Otto to the Hong Kong title by one shot with a wondrous 20-foot birdie on the final hole last year, Harrington has never donned the colourful coat.

'To tell the truth, I have not worn it since winning it last year. It has been hanging in my wardrobe. I was wondering if I should bring it back, and I decided I would do so as I thought I might get the opportunity to wear it here,' said Harrington.

When the Scottish piper - another tournament tradition - heralded the five players (the other two were Chinese ace Zhang Lianwei and Thailand's Thongchai Jaidee) for a tete-a-tete with local and foreign media at Fanling, Harrington took his chance and wore the red jacket. 'I have a lot of good memories from last year. On the long flight here, I was going through the course in my head.

'It is an old course and a very interesting one. It is a course that suits my eye,' said the 33-year-old Irishman, who is ranked sixth in the world.

While everyone rates his monster 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th as the shot of the tournament, Harrington rated his chip two holes earlier as the shot that won him the title last year. 'That was the best chip I have ever hit in my career. That chip allowed me to birdie the last two holes and win the title. I have a lot of good memories of this course,' added Harrington.

In 2003 and 2004, the Irishman won the European Tour season opening event.

This time he opted to miss the curtain-raising event on the 2005 calendar, last week's Volvo China Open.

'I have had a long year and my game is pretty good. I will be taking it a bit easier this time for my game is there. I will try not to tire myself too much during the week. Last year I tried hard but I need to relax a bit more this time,' said Harrington.

But taking it easy does not mean it is an open invitation for the rest to take the shirt - and jacket - off his back.

If anything else, winning this weekend is key to Harrington's long-term plans of making an assault on the world's top five rankings.

'I'm ranked sixth in the world right now. If I didn't tee off this week, I would remain in this position on January 1. If I don't play well here, I could drop to seven. So it is very important for me to do well here and defend my title,' said Harrington, who is the top-ranked player at this 46th staging of the tournament

Harrington is presently 1.27 points behind American Phil Mickelson on the world rankings and 7.35 points behind Vijay Singh of Fiji, the world number one. For the moment, Harrington has eyes only on Mickelson, and although 1.27 might sound small, it is a wide chasm in golf terms.

'I'm in a pocket right now. I'm a long way behind number five. It is a big step to move from six to five. It will be a major leap to bridge that gap. World rankings are very important and my aim is to move into the top five,' said Harrington.

He began the year ranked eighth. Now he has moved two places up the ladder, to a position he last reached in 2002. He has never gone a rung higher and wants to do that. Winning Hong Kong again would be a small step in the right direction.