Harrington faces Ryder Cup scrutiny

NEWPORT, Wales -- There is really little left to prove for a man who showed his mettle in winning three major championships over a two-season stretch, doing so with a grittiness that will forever hold him in high esteem.

The memories of his two Open Championship victories and a win at the PGA Championship were vivid enough for Padraig Harrington to get an at-large pick from European captain Colin Montgomerie to this week's Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor.

But there is a strong case to be made that the Irishman does not deserve to be here.

He has not won in more than two years, since the riveting back-nine duel with Sergio Garcia at Oakland Hills netted him a third major title in 13 months.

He has fared poorly in the past two Ryder Cups, winning a total of one point (two halves) at the K Club and Valhalla.

He missed the cut at three major championships this year, then failed to advance past the second tournament of the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup playoffs.

And then last week, adding a tournament in France because he was ineligible for the Tour Championship, the Irishman had to scramble to make the cut on the number at an event where he was the only player ranked in the top 50 in the world. He rallied Sunday to shoot 64 and finish T-8.

Throw in the angst over very credible picks Paul Casey and Justin Rose being left off the team, and Harrington might be under more pressure this week than any of the 24 players at the Ryder Cup.

"In many ways I will be trying to justify my place on the team," Harrington acknowledged recently. "When you get picked you are up for everything. You want to do a bit extra, feel like you have to give a bit more back. It is probably the same for Tiger Woods. In many ways, the Ryder Cup could be the pinnacle of his year, like it could be for me."

Despite his good-guy reputation, which includes his dogged determination, Harrington came under intense scrutiny when he received a pick along with England's Luke Donald and Italy's Edoardo Molinari.

The reasons were many: Harrington had not played well over the past year; he didn't show enough support of the European Tour, where had he done things differently, he could have easily qualified for the team; and he was not among the best three available, not when Casey is 15 spots ahead of him in the world rankings.

Harrington acknowledged one thing: he could have done a better job of trying to make the team on his own.

"I made an awful mess of my schedule," he said. "I won't make the same mistake the next time."

And that has put extreme focus on this Ryder Cup.

After missing the cut at the Deutsche Bank Championship three weeks ago, Harrington wasn't even aware of the European Tour's schedule, as he was in search of a place to play.

He spent time in Dublin working with his longtime swing coach, Bob Torrance (father of 2002 European captain Sam Torrance), and then headed to Paris last week for the Vivendi Trophy, a pro-am style event where he played the first two rounds with his brother, Fergal.

It was there where he had a long chat with Montgomerie, a playing partner in five matches over the years (they went 3-2, including a victory over Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in 2004). That friendship is likely among the big reasons the Scotsman made Harrington a pick.

"It's given him incentive to get the game back in order," Montgomerie said. "Which I am convinced ... of course that's why I picked him, convinced that it will.

"You tend to forget that in 2006, having played with him in practice and that first day, I think he was trying a little bit too hard, pushing too hard in his home country. And of course in 2008, having come off the two major wins, I think he was exhausted to be honest," Montgomerie said.

"And this is a very different Padraig Harrington we are seeing now, someone who has not performed to the ability that he possesses. ... I was so glad that, unprompted in the press, he is standing up to the plate now to be that on-course leader that we haven't had for a couple of years maybe within the Ryder Cup."

It is true that Harrington is embracing the Ryder Cup, perhaps more than ever. He gleefully showed up in Wales on Monday, while in the past he felt such an early arrival was unnecessary.

And he knows he won't be sitting, as Monty has assured all 12 members of the team that they will play on Friday.

"Padraig would be the first to admit he hasn't performed well over the last 18 months and there is no question he is going to feel under enormous pressure to justify his pick over other players who are arguably in better form," said England's Ian Poulter, who faced his own bit of pressure -- and played the best of the Europeans -- when Nick Faldo made him a captain's pick in 2008.

"Hopefully he will be ready to go. As we all know, and I certainly do after what happened at The Open in 2008 [where Poulter finished second to Harrington], there have been times in the past when Padraig has been under equally immense pressure and he has performed very well."

Harrington's overall record in eight Ryder Cup appearances is 7-11-3, a mark that would look far better if he had been able to win even a single match in either of the past two Ryder Cups.

That, of course, highlights how good Harrington was at the Ryder Cup before he became a major winner. In his first three Ryder Cups, he was 7-4-1.

So the history is there. And so is the experience.

Whether or not Harrington is able to step up this time, even in a limited role, could prove to be the difference in the Ryder Cup come Sunday.

"Absolutely I feel under more pressure to justify my pick, but with all that pressure comes more adrenaline, and I'm excited about it," he said.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.