Harrington changes reap reward
Back in the swing
Given the startling amount of work he did on the mechanics of his game during his mid-winter break, Padraig Harrington probably should have left a trail of nuts and bolts behind him in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi Championship yesterday.
Yet the Dubliner didn't even drop a shot, instead picking up five birdies and an eagle in a remarkable 65 -- the best score he has posted in the opening round of a new season since turning professional in 1995.
Prompted to make upwards of 20 changes to his swing and his pre-putting routine by the frustrations he encountered on the golf course in 2010, Harrington said with a grin: "I'd a pretty good six weeks."
Even when the country was snowbound last month, he took his work indoors, crashing ball after ball into nets in a large workroom in his basement, utterly immersed in and inspired by the endless pursuit of perfection.
From dawn to dusk and often long into the early hours, Harrington indulged this obsession and when he sat down yesterday and explained the dizzying number of alterations he's working into his game, the official transcript stretched to 4,666 words.
The way Harrington tells it, if Old Trafford is the 'Theatre of Dreams', then the European Tour is an arena for eccentrics. He actually insists that many of his fellow professionals on the practice range at this week's HSBC Championship are as committed to the pursuit of perfection as he is.
"I have seen more guys lose their Tour card by doing too much than guys lose their card by doing too little," he claimed.
Harrington cited a conversation he'd had walking down the final fairway with Germany's US PGA winner and defending champion this week, Martin Kaymer, less than an hour earlier.
"Martin was saying that it's nice to find something to work on in your swing that you can never actually get, because that means you will always have something to bring you back to the range, to keep you working and going forward.
"So, every player is out there working on something to a different degree," Harrington went on.
Yet nobody, not even the legendary Fijian workaholic Vijay Singh, takes it to the same level as Ireland's three-time Major champion.
"I'm complicated, not eccentric," Harrington (39) insisted. "The day I don't have something to work on, I probably won't be as excited to get up in the morning to go out and practise.
"I was nervous coming to the course this morning. I was thinking 'first round of the year, is the game still going to be there? What am I going to shoot?' That's exactly where I want to be. I got up at 4.45 this morning and it might as well have been the middle of the day, I was jumping around the room and bouncing off the walls. That's a sign that I'm ready to go."
Harrington was quite right to be nervous. After weeks trying to bed-in so many different changes, his proud record of "never having a swing thought on the golf course in 14 years" was about to come under severe challenge.
Under those circumstance, to post 65 on a testing course (good enough for second place just one stroke behind South Africa's Charl Schwartzel) augurs well.
Yet this was not a new beginning, Harrington stressed, adding: "The changes really are still a work in progress. You only realise how hard changing things can be when you get out on the course and, at times, some of the old habits emerged. However, I was encouraged to hit a lot of important shots as well."
At 75pc intensity on the range this week, Harrington's new-look swing worked smoothly. With what he describes as "fewer moving parts," it has great potential, even if, like a new high-performance engine, it occasionally misfires a little at full throttle on the track.
The good shots were brilliant, like the towering drive he drew around the dog leg on the eighth to land his ball in mid-fairway 20 yards ahead of Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen, a recurring feature which Harrington found satisfying yesterday.
Harrington then reached for his 3-wood, which these days has a 'Ladybird' cover, a Christmas gift his son Paddy (7), found on the internet and which serves as a reminder of a famous Sunday at Carnoustie when his dad gave him permission to put ladybirds in the Claret Jug.
The shot Harrington subsequently hit into the green was reminiscent of those heady days. If unlucky when his ball ran through to the back fringe, the Irishman was fortunate after the chip he clipped too firmly crashed into the pin and fell into the cup for an eagle three.
On occasions, Harrington seemed a little fazed by his new routine of practice putting over the ball. "I was away with the fairies at the first when I missed that six-footer for birdie," he confessed.
Yet when he needed to sink a few big putts to save par, notably a six-foot teaser on the short seventh and an 18-foot monster at the last, that old black magic was there.
He may have just one victory to his name (at October's Johor Open in Malaysia) since winning the 2008 US PGA at Oakland Hills, but Harrington's first steps of 2011 suggest Ireland's greatest sporting eccentric might soon resume his victory march at the Majors.
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