Padraig Harrington: 2008 winner looking forward to Open Championship at Royal Birkdale

Padraig Harrington with The Claret Jug after winning the 2008 Open Championship
Padraig Harrington successfully defended his Open Championship title in 2008 with a four-shot victory over Ian Poulter at Royal Birkdale

Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington will be relishing the prospect of this phase of the golf season probably more than any of the other top stars in the game.

The European Tour's 'links swing' of seaside golf begins with the Irishman's home open at Portstewart. After this week's Irish Open, it is the Scottish Open at Dundonald before The Open itself at Royal Birkdale.

Three consecutive weeks of golf in its most traditional form, which demands shot-making skills, imagination, power and touch.

Over the years, Harrington has been blessed with all these attributes and this forthcoming spell concludes at the venue where he won the second of his two Opens, a place where he played the golf of his life.

Now 45, this most articulate of golfing ambassadors is one of the senior figures on tour, blessed with rare intelligence and perspective.

He thinks golf is harder than ever for the younger generation because of the depth of talent around these days. But he still believes Rory McIlroy, whose charitable foundation backs this week's Irish Open, can win up to 10 majors.

And for someone who has practised tirelessly his entire career, Harrington says he will return to Birkdale later this month feeling a sense of contentment, happy for the memories of 2008 to come flooding back.

Indeed, he has already returned to the Southport course with his club sponsors to help reignite thoughts of what was a remarkable title defence after initially winning it at Carnoustie in 2007.

Iain Carter interviewing Padraig Harrington
Iain Carter interviewing Harrington at Royal Birkdale, the venue for The Open this year

'I'm on the ultimate busman's holiday'

"Content is the word. I come back here and I know that I've done it," Harrington told BBC Sport over a cup of tea in Birkdale's distinctive art-deco clubhouse.

"When I come back for The Open I have to make sure I take time to take a deep breath and look round and enjoy everything. I'm not saying I'm retired now but anything I do now in the game of golf will be a bonus.

"I'm on the ultimate busman's holiday at this stage and I intend to embrace that."

It was a different story in 2008, when it took generous assistance from rival Phil Mickelson to help Harrington be fit enough to tee up for his title defence. The Irishman injured his wrist practising at home the weekend before The Open.

"I was doing some speed work, hitting an impact bag one-handed," Harrington told me. "I'd just hit a golf ball at 177mph one-handed and then hit into the bag and tweaked something in my wrist.

"I couldn't swing the golf club Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday without some pain. I was getting physio all day, every day, and in the evening I was going over to Phil Mickelson's hotel.

"He had one of these laser-like treatment machines and I was leaving no stone unturned.

"We'd have this 45-minute chat every night as I sat there lasering my wrist in his hotel. It was a small room too," Harrington added, with his infectious giggle.

"Phil is that type of guy. He's got a good sense of the game. He wants to beat the hell out of you on the golf course but he'd like you to be playing your best while he's doing it."

Despite his lack of practice, Harrington was able to compete on what proved a miserable Thursday, when the rain came in sideways. It was all too much for 1985 champion Sandy Lyle, who walked off mid-round.

The adverse conditions seemed to help Harrington because they dampened expectation levels and he simply had to dig in to survive.

Padraig Harrington plays a shot during the first round of the 2008 Open Championship
Padraig Harrington shot a four-over 74 during the first round of the 2008 Open but eventually won the tournament by four shots

As rivals fell away, the Irishman climbed into contention to trail surprise leader Greg Norman by two shots heading into the final round.

"It was a really tough week physically, in terms of those conditions on the Thursday and then the wind for all four days," he recalled.

"If ever a golf tournament would shatter you physically and mentally that was it. I was the freshest person because I'd played no golf Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday."

Harrington capitalised with the finest performance of his life in a closing 69 that gave him a four-stroke victory by finishing at three over par.

"Going out in the last group, being in that pressure situation, that was the best golf I ever played without a shadow of a doubt," he said.

"I played a game that I dreamt of playing as a kid. I swung the club well, hit the ball well, I did everything right."

He can recall playing superbly in defeat at the US Open in 2006 and at The Open of 2002, as well as his surge through the field to win his first major at Carnoustie in 2007.

"But none of those was I leading the tournament. Then there is a different kind of pressure," he added.

Harrington sealed victory with a daring five wood to set up an eagle at the treacherous par-five 17th, the penultimate hole of the championship.

"A lot of things happened that built the confidence that led to me being able to hit the spectacular shot into the 71st green," he said.

"It was my favourite club, perfect yardage, everything about it was set up for a big shot. But I looked at it today and thought 'wow, there wasn't much distance between the bunker and the green'.

"I hit the perfect shot and only carried the bunker by five yards at the most. The gorse was tight on the left. I wonder if I would lay up today? But then I never lay up," Harrington smiled.

A couple of weeks later he won the third of his majors with victory at the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, and it is only now he fully appreciates the scale of his achievement.

"There's only a handful of guys who have won three or more majors in the time of my career. It's a rarity to win three majors.

"Maybe when you are doing it, you don't realise it but I certainly realise it now. They ain't easy to come by.

"And it's tough for the young guys now, there are a lot of really quality players out there but even the quality players will do well to go beyond one, two majors. You are setting yourself apart at three majors, and four and above you're among the really big names."

'Does McIlroy believe he can get to 10 majors?'

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland poses with the Wanamaker trophy after his one-stroke victory during the final round of the 96th PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club
Rory McIlroy became the first British player to win back-to-back majors when he edged a gripping US PGA Championship in near darkness in 2014

That brings us to this week's tournament host McIlroy, who has been stuck on four majors since winning the 2014 PGA at Valhalla. The 28-year-old claimed his first by romping to an eight-shot victory at the US Open six years ago.

"When Rory was winning in 2011, there was no one competing with him, he was lapping the field," Harrington said.

"Now there are six or seven guys that even when Rory turns up with his best game, they are capable of matching it. Rory is definitely going to get to the eight or nine major level and having talked to him he's thinking about those kind of numbers.

"I wonder, does he believe he can get 10?" Harrington pondered.

"He's got loads of time and the reality is that people want him to win eight or nine now. History will show it took Jack Nicklaus 20 years to win his 18.

"Rory is the type of player who could win two this year or next year or even three in a year and all of a sudden he has gone from four to seven.

"But that doesn't mean he is going to win one every year for four years, it just doesn't work out like that."

Harrington has stuck to a fierce fitness regime which means he remains strong and flexible enough to live with the young guns, who dominate the modern game.

"I don't believe it is a young man's game," he said. "It is a power game, guys are all coming out powerful. For the older guys, you either keep up with that or you are giving up something.

"There is a lot of depth at the top. No longer can anyone turn up and say 'if I play my best, I'm guaranteed to win'. In Tiger's era, if he turned up even with his 'B' game he could win.

"These top guys, they're under a lot of pressure with a lot of issues around them. Most of them, I think, are looking over their shoulders more worried about the other guy and that's hard."

Content with his place in the game, Harrington - who has recovered from a freak elbow injury when he was struck by a pupil he was teaching, as well as neck surgery - can take a more relaxed approach.

For him the challenge of golf is there to be enjoyed. "I love being out here, it is fun," he said. "I believe I'm a better player than many people would think.

"I'm comfortable that I don't have to go out there and prove anything to anyone. Winning four is not going to be much different to winning three."

And that's the relaxed mindset which will be evident to the large galleries who will undoubtedly follow over the next three weeks when golf will be in all its glory on the links of Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north-west coast of England.