Same Story, Different Name

He captured more majors than anyone last year, won every player of the year award on golf's landscape and will make his PGA Tour debut this week in the Buick Invitational.  The story should sound familiar, just not the name.

"Never really thought of it that way," Padraig Harrington said Wednesday.

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Instead of Tiger Woods, the feature attraction at Torrey Pines is Harrington, who has won three of the last six majors, including consecutive titles last year in the British Open and PGA Championship.

Harrington is No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked player at the Buick Invitational by a small margin over hometown star Phil Mickelson. And while Lefty figures to attract the largest gallery -- the security detail that usually follows Woods has been assigned to him -- the Irishman was the No. 1 pick at the pro-am draw party.

This will be the earliest Harrington has started on the PGA Tour, but he could not think of a better place.

He was at Torrey Pines for the U.S. Open last summer, but this is his first time to play the Buick Invitational. He spent his pro-am Wednesday on the North course, which in June was occupied by parking lots, practice areas, corporate tents and the media center.

Reaching the crest of the fifth fairway, staring below at the green, the cliffs and the Pacific Ocean, Harrington caught himself.

"This is a particularly pretty view," he said, a rare understatement by his standards.

And when one of his amateur partners asked him to list his favorite golf course in America (not counting Augusta National), Harrington listed the next three tournaments on his schedule -- Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach and Riviera, the only time in PGA Tour history that three straight tournaments are held at U.S. Open venues.

What kind of game he will bring to those courses remains a mystery.

"Less than sharp," Harrington said.

He takes a two-month break from tournament golf during the winter, but he is always working, always refining his swing to find a way to make it better. He concedes that it takes time for the moving parts to get in sync.

"You can practice as much as you like, go on the golf course and play as much as you like," he said. "But it's totally different when you have a card in your hand."

Good thing his card on Wednesday was only for a pro-am.

From 90 yards short of the fourth green, he looked like one of his amateurs when he chunked a sand wedge that didn't get halfway to the green. On the uphill seventh along the cliffs, he hooked his tee shot into hazard. He wound up with a 73 on the easy North.

In some respects, Harrington filled the void when Woods missed the second half of the season with knee surgery, at least in performance. He won the British Open, the first major without Woods since he turned pro. Harrington was Tiger-like in winning consecutive majors. And just like Woods, his performance in the Ryder Cup was not up to par.

But the biggest difference is the start to his season.

Woods shows up at every tournament prepared to win, and he usually does, especially at Torrey Pines. Harrington is the first to admit he's not there yet, and might never be.

"I go to events hopeful," he said with a laugh. "I'm hoping the game will be there, but not expecting it."

The earliest Harrington has won in a season was the 2005 Honda Classic, held in March, but that was his fourth straight start. Harrington made his 2009 debut three weeks ago in Abu Dhabi and tied for fifth, a pleasant surprise.

But it was a surprise.

He is a control freak, getting more satisfaction out of knowing he can hit the proper shot instead of simply seeing a good shot.

"This is a good example," he said as he walked down the eighth fairway toward his tee shot, nestled in the rough some 10 yards left of the fairway. "I thought I made a good swing. I felt it would start down the middle. But it started down the left side with a draw. It was a surprise to see it start 10 yards left of where I was aiming.

"That's what I'm saying," he said. "It's not that I'll be making a better swing in the summer, but I'll have a better concept of where I'm at. I'll be able to tell on Wednesday what's going to come out tomorrow. This time of the year, I'm not sure where my strengths are or what I'm trying to avoid."

Harrington often finds himself playing a tournament while preparing for another one, and maybe that's why he has won three of the last six majors dating to the 2007 British Open. And he has no complaints.

"But that was the goal in the winter, to make sure every time I teed it up that I was more sure of where I was. And I'm not sure of anything at the moment," he said with a laugh. "I failed miserably this week."

Mickelson is coming off the slightest of failures, having missed the cut last week in the FBR Open. The good news for Lefty is the last two times he has missed a cut on the West Coast, he won the next week -- at Pebble Beach in 2007, and at Riviera last year.

He isn't too worried about being in last place in the FedEx Cup standings one week into his year.

"I'm just going to brush it off and see how it goes this week," Mickelson said. "Start '09 anew this week."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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