Change as good as a rest for 'Tinkerman' Padraig
IT'S easy to dismiss Padraig Harrington as golf's greatest tinkerman, a latter-day Dr Frankenstein of the fairways.
It's also unfair. Harrington is besotted with the nuts and bolts of golf, admitting that he likes nothing better than to strip down his swing like a high-performance engine, then put it all back together.
Yet the 39-year-old's voracious appetite for practice and his determination to make use of bio-mechanics, computer technology and medical science in the pursuit of perfection should keep him in the frame at the Majors well into his 40s.
With each passing season, Harrington is building a dossier which insiders believe will one day help the Dubliner produce the definitive golf anthology, like Ben Hogan's renowned 'Five Lessons: the Modern Fundamentals of Golf', only for the 21st century.
For example, throughout last year Harrington wore a cardiac monitor and every day he measured the specific gravity of his urine on a refractometer.
The data was used by fitness guru Dr Liam Hennessy to compile a comprehensive picture of Harrington's physical stress levels, helping him to determine his ideal diet, the optimum amount of practice he can do and how much rest is required for him to turn up at the Majors at a physical peak.
Harrington stunned some observers last Friday when he revealed the raft of changes he set in train over the winter, leading one to ask: "Why don't you just stand up there and hit the ball?". "Because that's not me," he replied. "I can do that with my putting stroke because I've always swung it on a nice path without having to worry about it and it's the same with my chipping.
"Yet even when I was a kid, I always had moving parts in my swing. I've always had to develop it. If I stood up there and tried to swing naturally, I'd have good rhythm and hit good shots but only for a limited period. My putting and chipping are not to be tinkered with, whereas the long game is."
The word 'tinkering', defined in the Oxford Dictionary as "working in an amateurish or desultory way," couldn't be less appropriate.
Every change Harrington made this winter was put in place to correct specific shortcomings identified in his game in 2010, a year he describes as "the most frustrating of
my career". The change to his pre-putting routine, for example, is to combat an astonishing fall-off in Harrington's conversion rate from six feet and over.
Between three and five feet he's the world's deadliest finisher, but from six to 10 feet he ranked 162nd on the US Tour last year, which he and his short-game guru, Dr Paul Hurrion, believe might have been due to an alignment problem caused by his practice swing.
Dr Hurrion, an expert in bio-mechanics, also liaised with the scientists at the Titleist Performance Institute in California to help identify anomalies in Harrington's swing which caused inconsistency in his ball-striking and lay behind his inaccuracy off the tee.
Harrington's veteran coach, Bob Torrance, is critical in ensuring that his swing still works as a cohesive unit as adjustments suggested by the boffins and their 3-D computers are bedded in. The Dubliner's swing went completely out of kilter early in 2009, for example, reputedly when a minor alteration was made during a 13-week spell when he was competing in the US and wasn't in contact with the renowned Scottish teacher.
Yet Harrington readily concedes his greatest problems since becoming a three-time Major champion in 2008 have been in the mind department, especially when it comes to dealing with great expectations.
He explained: "Expectations were high in nearly every tournament last year. It's hard to play with those high expectations at times and I just didn't deliver. Then you try harder and put more pressure on yourself and that doesn't help." This is Dr Bob Rotella's department. The American sports psychologist is also helping Harrington address his failure in 2010 to bring good form from practice into competition.
A tendency to trip up on simpler shots, especially when he's confident or playing well, has also hindered the Irishman. Tellingly, he concedes the worst shot in his bag up until the end of last year was the lay-up at par-fives. "I couldn't lay up to save my life," he admitted.
"It was just so hard for me to hit a five-iron or a four-iron down the fairway. Because it's such an easy shot, I didn't put enough pressure on myself, or effort, whatever. Yet I improved that immensely over the last couple of months of the season. I stuck to the same routine to the point where I actually managed to lay up successfully every time."
At this week's Abu Dhabi Championship, Harrington begins the process of putting a winter's work into competitive effect -- a process which he says will take up to six weeks before the changes are fully bedded in.
And Harrington, through the appliance of science, once again becomes a Major contender.