independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

The signs were there, but nobody recognised them...

Padraig Harrington's father died from oesophageal cancer in 2005, and now the golfer is on a mission to raise awareness of the condition

Padraig Harrington and his dad Paddy

My dad had persistent problems with heartburn," Padraig Harrington champion golfer explains. "But he was old school – 'I'm okay, don't worry about it'."

Worrying would have been exactly the right response. A lifelong sufferer of acid reflux, eventually Harrington Snr developed oesophageal cancer, from which he died in 2005, aged 72.

"It was a tough one in that it could have been prevented," says Harrington (42). "As with a lot of diseases, it is about trying to catch it early. The subject is close to my heart. Had I known more, I would have said something to my dad."

Harrington was struck by the difference in emphasis when he travelled to the United States.

There, cancer warnings are ubiquitous and late diagnoses of the sort that cost his father his life are, Harrington suspects, less frequent. American-style early detection systems could, he believes, have saved his dad, Paddy, a former garda who played senior football for Cork.

"The amount of days I can remember having to go down to the shop to buy anti-acid tablets for him," Harrington sighs.

"It was a regular occurrence – maybe two, three times a week. I can still remember the name of the brand. He stretched his immune system. In the end that's what left him vulnerable to cancer. In every other way, he was extremely healthy."

Harrington, from Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, balances his support for Lollipop Day, which raises awareness about oesophageal cancer, with his day job as a golfer. As a professional for nearly two decades, health and fitness are constantly on his mind.

He works out regularly in the gym, knowing that, to compete at the top level, he needs to be in peak condition. The stereotype of the elite golfer as a slightly tubby middle-aged man has, he reveals, no place in reality. You have to be in shape, mentally and physically.

"The fitter you are the stronger you are, the more capable of not letting fatigue be a problem and potentially causing injury," says Harrington, winner of the British Open in 2007 and 2008 and of the PGA Championship in 2008. "I'm at this 17 years and for 16 of those years I've been putting in work in the gym.

Most weeks I put in 70 plus hours (of golf). When I am at a tournament it can be up to 80 hours – ridiculous stuff, really. You need to be pretty healthy to sustain that."

The problem is not necessarily today's challenge, he explains. It's tomorrow's challenge – and the one the day after that. If you drain your physical and mental reserves, how are you going to continue performing at your best?

"You don't want to take 'tomorrow' away today. I would have lost a lot of tournaments early in my career because I would have done so much on Thursday and by the time I got to Sunday I was running out of energy."

Some golfers bring their personal lives – their stresses and fears – on to the course with them. You might expect this to be to the detriment of their game.

But in Harrington's experience, loneliness, more than stress or worry, can be fatal to a golfer's prospects.

If you spend every night in your hotel room, obsessing about the day's play, your confidence may crumble, your sense of perspective starts to warp dangerously. You become a prisoner, trapped inside the four walls of your mind.

"You begin to replay everything in your head. At the end of a day playing golf, I want to socialise – to go out and have dinner and what have you. That's important."

This comes with a caveat – it is crucial that he is able to discuss his performance with a confidante for 10 or 15 minutes.

He requires a sounding board to whom he can speak candidly. Once that is done, it's best to put the day's ups and downs behind you. You breathe it out, you move on.

'Through most of my career, I would talk to my father," he says. "Now it would be my mother or my wife Caroline. I need to walk through what I've done on the course for about 10 minutes. It's amazing how getting something off your chest can help."

He's learnt this through hard experience. "There have been occasions where I've come off the golf course and perhaps I have my family with me and there's a big rush to get to the evening meal.

There is a time frame outside your life that you have to fit into. If you've hurried to get to dinner and haven't really stopped to think about the day on the course, maybe you end up being in a bad mood, short with people.

"No matter what else, you need to stop up for that 10 minutes and get it off your chest. I think that's true of everybody. If you have someone who will listen without being judgmental, who is on your side, it can be hugely helpful."

He has observed young golfers come into the professional circuit without that support network and flounder. Often they will expect older pros to take a keen interest in their ups and downs on the course. It can come as a surprise to realise that actually nobody is much bothered about what they've gone through. The grizzled pros have seen it all before. Frankly, they couldn't care less.

"These guys are star players in the small pond. They come into the big pond – and the big pond doesn't care. So there is nowhere for them to have any relief for their emotions. We're not interested. The only stories we want to hear are the big things. The mundane stuff, 'oh I hit a divot on the fourth hole ... ' Fine, who cares? So they have to find somebody they can talk to."

Harrington has worked with leading sports psychologists throughout his career. Mental preparation is crucial, he feels. To play at his best, he has to be on an edge between nervous and relaxed. If he's too tense, he won't perform.

Conversely, if he's overly laid-back, he is liable to get sloppy. Psychologically, there is a sweet spot where he needs to be.

"If I relax, I lose my sharpness and I struggle. You find that is often true of professional athletes – very few play brilliantly and find it easy. You need a certain level of tension. You hear about the guy throwing up in the dressing-room before a big game. That's what it's about."

Lollipop Day will be held on Friday 28 Feb and it will continue onto Sat March 1. The Oesophageal Cancer Fund (OCF) is calling on the public to buy a lollipop (€2), support the OCF and to be aware of the symptoms. www.lollipopday.ie

Irish Independent

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