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Harrington pushes for Olympic golf and now gets to play

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) " Padraig Harrington was a strong voice in golf's bid to become an Olympic sport for the first time in more than a century.

And then golf's image took a hit as players began dropping out, and the Irishman went quiet.

He desperately wanted golf to succeed, and that meant unified support from the top players. But as they began pulling out " particularly Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland " it became personal. Without players withdrawing, he wouldn't have a chance to play.

"I was wearing two hats when it came to this," Harrington said. "Obviously, I want golf to be a success in the Olympics, but I clearly wanted to go. So I wasn't jumping up and down saying, 'Guys, you should all go.' I was staying out of it. Because it is a dream of mine."

It becomes a reality when Harrington arrives in Rio de Janeiro on Monday and the draw is announced for the 72-hole competition that starts Thursday and concludes with the first medals awarded since 1904 in St. Louis.

Golf began its bid process in April 2008, about the time Harrington soared to his greatest heights. He repeated as British Open champion that year, and then won the PGA Championship to become the first European to win back-to-back majors in the modern lineup of Grand Slam events.

Harrington joined the biggest names in golf " Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Annika Sorenstam " in a strong pitch to the IOC to put golf back in the program. But when the Rio Games rolled around, Harrington was nowhere close to qualifying because of three Irish golfers well ahead of him in the world ranking.

And then McIlroy pulled out, citing the Zika virus. Graeme McDowell withdrew because his wife is due with their second child and he didn't want to be out of the country. Shane Lowry also withdrew. And now Harrington, the most famous of all Irish golfers, is headed to the Olympics.

He hasn't even met the other Irish qualifier, Seamus Powers, who plays on the Web.com Tour. But he is thrilled to have him as a teammate.

"I'd be hoping that the two of us have a chance coming down the last nine holes," Harrington said.

Why are the Olympics so important? Why would a three-time major champion care more about gold than the silver claret jug or Wanamaker Trophy?

That dates to his teenage years, when Harrington was starting to blossom in golf and was invited to three or four banquets each winter that honor the best sporting achievements in Ireland and feature the heroes of Irish sport over the years.

"Every sports awards I went to from 15 years of age, the first man they called out was a guy named Ronnie Delany, who won the 1,500 gold medal in 1956," he said. "Every sports award. That's how big a deal it is. I sat there and looked up and this guy ... who is this guy? It's a huge deal in Ireland."

Harrington can recite the Irish history in the Olympics, from Delany's gold medal in Melbourne to Pat O'Callaghan's two golds in boxing in 1928 and 1932, Bob Tisdall in the 1932 Olympics for the 400-meter hurdles, even Jack Butler Yeats winning a silver in mixed painting, when art competitions were part of the games.

So yes, it's a huge deal.

He even chose to sacrifice his standing on the PGA Tour. Harrington played the Travelers Championship in Connecticut last week, failing in his bid to move into the top 125 in the FedEx Cup. There are two events remaining, but he'll be in Rio " playing one week, watching the next.

"I normally come back and would play, but I think so much of the Olympics, I'm going to take a week's holiday and go to a number of events," Harrington said. "It's an opportunity of a lifetime to really have a great week's holiday the second week. The first week will be all business but hopefully the second week we'll have a good week."

On his agenda are table tennis, gymnastics, diving, cycling, boxing.

"I'm sure I'm missing out on one or two," he said. "This is all the second week. So I'm trying to do two things a day the second week. I'm really keen on it. It's really great fun watching all those sports. The Olympics ... the pain of losing is exceptional, the joy of winning, it's right there on the line. So I'd watch anything in those circumstances and obviously, the Olympics is the pinnacle of it all."

He felt that way when he lobbied hard for golf to be part of it. And now he gets to take part of it himself.

To listen to him, this is pure joy.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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