It was a schoolboy competition at Donabete Golf Club. Colaiste Eanna had sent a team of four boys to compete and vice-principal Sean O’Donnell was on driving duty. He loves the game of golf but refuses to take any credit for what became of some of the boys he used to chauffeur to tournaments.
Anyway, they arrive at the northside Dublin course, but one of their players has gone missing. O’Donnell had just taken the key out of the ignition, seat belt still on, but a teenage Padraig Harrington had already evaporated like an apparition.
He hadn’t got cold feet or lost his nerve – the opposite. Already he was showing an appetite for the grind that eventually vaulted him into golfing stardom.
“I remember the first time Padraig played for the school, he disappeared when we arrived in Donabate,” O’Donnell says.
“We couldn’t find him. I went looking for him and he was already on the putting green. He went straight there. He was that focused already at that age. He wanted to win. I saw it even more in Padraig than I did in Paul.
“Paul is more relaxed. He wouldn’t be as driven. You saw Padraig when he won those big tournaments like the Open – did you see that look in his eyes? That is Padraig.”
The Paul that O’Donnell is referring to is Paul McGinley – an ex-pupil that allows Colaiste Eanna to lay claim to a unique sporting distinction as the only school to produce two Ryder Cup captains, with Harrington recently announced as the man to lead the European team into battle in 2020.
Tucked away on Hillside Park, just off Ballyroan Road in Rathfarnham, Colaiste Eanna is a world away from the sun-soaked, manicured golf courses on which American Ryder Cup stars tend to be produced.
Harrington and McGinley are down-to-earth local guys at heart, and you can see that in their background.
Situated ten minutes from Ballyboden St Enda’s, many Colaiste Eanna students play for the local GAA team – although the presence of Rathfarnham Golf Club, The Grange and Stackstown among many other courses means that there are some keen golfers floating around too.
Harrington and McGinley fitted into both categories.
Both men had great battles on the GAA field with Colaiste Eanna, McGinley seeing off a Niall Quinn-led Drimnagh Castle side while Harrington was defeated by a Dessie Farrell-inspired St Vincent’s – not before managing to collapse the crossbar at Croke Park following a booming 45.
McGinley was five years older so their paths didn’t really cross as peers until they both emerged strongly on the national golf scene years later, but their former teachers remember two distinct characters during their time roaming the corridors of the 600-pupil school.
Brendan Vaughan was principal during Harrington’s time there, and can vividly recall his drive in the same way that O’Donnell saw it on the putting green in Donabete. McGinley was a more laid-back personality.
“They were two different individuals,” Vaughan says.
“Padraig was very committed to the job that he had to do. He wouldn’t be cracking many jokes with you. At the end of a class, there would be no waste of time. Paul was full of fun. He would entertain you as much as anything, and he was very clever too.”
“Padraig was serious and McGinley had a twinkle in his eye,” O’Donnell adds.
As a teenager, McGinley’s dream was to play for Dublin. Harrington’s sporting focus was definitely directed at on-course matters. As formative golfing experiences go, it’s worth mentioning the 17th hole at Rosses Point.
17th holes have played a big part in Harrington’s career. At Royal Birkdale in 2008, the Dubliner sealed his second Claret Jug with the shot of his career, which made an eagle almost a formality. Three weeks later at Oakland Hills, a birdie at the next to last gave him priceless breathing room en route to the PGA Championship and a first Major on American soil.
But alongside those professional triumphs at the penultimate will remain that 17th hole in Sligo, a slight dogleg up the hill that probably still draws Harrington’s ire 30-odd years later.
“We qualified three years in-a-row for the All-Ireland schools championship, Padraig was the captain and it was played in Rosses Point every year,” O’Donnell remembers.
“They were beaten by Summerhill College each year because that was their local course. The 17th hole is a long par four bending up the hill, a very difficult par four for a schoolboy. If Padraig had managed to get a four at the 17th, we would have qualified for the international tournament. Aer Lingus sponsored it in Scotland every year. Padraig didn’t manage to get a four, we lost by one shot and Summerhill went to Scotland, all expenses paid. I wonder would he remember it!”
More than near-misses on the Connacht coastline, O’Donnell points to Harrington’s father Paddy during those years as someone who shaped both the man he became and the player.
“The biggest influence on his life was his father,” he says.
“Paddy insisted that he qualified as an accountant before turning professional because with the contracts Padraig was getting at the time when he started to do very well, Paddy said that ‘with those telephone figures you need to be able to add them up’.”
The mark Harrington and McGinley made on Colaiste Eanna is evident from the moment you walk through the door. Students, teachers and visitors are greeted by a trophy cabinet featuring mementos from Ryder Cup wins, Major triumphs and the even more remarkable coincidence of two Rathfarnham lads winning the Golf World Cup for Ireland.
Current principal Seán Ó Murchú says that the duo’s affection for their local area and their background has rubbed off on the students who came after them – and in some cases inspired them to their own sporting greatness.
“Last Tuesday we had Brian Gartland, who plays with Dundalk, come down with the FAI Cup and league trophy,” he says.
“After the lads won the Golf World Cup, they came into the assembly hall with the trophy and gave a speech and Brian said to me, ‘I was sitting there looking at them and thinking, I’d love to be up there one day’ and it was quite emotional on Tuesday afternoon, he said, because it was one of his dreams to come back.
“Both Padraig and Paul have been very decent, and helped out with the school over the years.
“The two lads did very well academically and then they went off and have excelled in their fields and yet they don’t forget their roots. They come back.
“No other part of the world would have two people coming together like that,” Vaughan added.
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