Sunday 23 April 2017

Harrington splits from mentor who shaped his destiny

Triple Major winner's break from coach Bob Torrance is latest move in desperate journey to scale heights of old, writes Dermot Gilleece

Padraig Harrington walks along the 1st fairway during the second round of the 2011 Discover Ireland Irish Open Golf Championship
Padraig Harrington walks along the 1st fairway during the second round of the 2011 Discover Ireland Irish Open Golf Championship

Dermot Gilleece

Pádraig Harrington has split with his coach Bob Torrance as a reaction to his bleak run of form, culminating in a second Irish Open missed cut in three years. The break, which came before lunchtime yesterday in Killarney, left the 79-year-old Scot clearly upset, as he and his wife June headed back to their hotel.

Though there was a certain inevitability about it, you sensed it was a decision neither man wanted. "Bob has been unbelievably important in my career; he has completely shaped it," Harrington acknowledged yesterday. "But at the moment, I'm frustrated and I don't know if I want him standing looking at me. Yet when he's not standing looking at me I am not happy either. So, it's been hard.

"But this is a selfish decision at the end of the day. Where we always had a good argument, there has been less arguing of late. Just more frustration and tension rather than getting it out there. While I don't want to completely break the relationship with Bob, I have got to see what else is out there."

The first hint of such a move came on Friday when a second-round 72 had left him four strokes outside the cut mark. Harrington clearly failed in a valiant attempt at making sense of his situation. Minutes later, he seemed to welcome the distraction of his off-course duties, walking along a line of supporters concentrated close by the Killarney clubhouse, signing autographs with his customary grace.

By way of reciprocation, one sensed the fans were offering tacit reassurance to a player who, only a few years ago, seemed set for extended prominence in world golf. During a lengthy, post-round inquisition, the odd wry smile had revealed more about Harrington's current plight than the many words he delivered.The player, whose breakthrough to big-time golf was based significantly on an ability to put a score together, had failed to meet the relatively modest challenge of one-under par for 36 holes in ideal playing conditions. And he didn't seem to know why.

After some time considering the matter, he made the decision to split from the man who totally overhauled his swing when they first came together almost exactly 13 years ago. And a measure of the importance of their relationship to Harrington was the praise he lavished on the grizzled Scot in his acceptance speech as Open champion at Carnoustie in 2007.

Against this background, it was hardly surprising to hear him talk about how difficult the decision had been. "If I win a tournament next week or in six weeks' time, or in two years' time or in 10 years' time, my swing will be based on what Bob has taught me," he said.

"At the end of the day that is never going to change. He has shaped and put his mark on my golf swing that will be there for the rest of my life. Everything about it.

"I think the problems between us came down to the fact that I want to spend more time working on my mental game and my short game than necessarily beating balls, which I would have done earlier on in my career."

After Torrance had changed his swing from a low cut to a high draw, Harrington became a competitor with all the tools, having retained the ability to cobble together glittering scores from highly improbable locations, much to the astonishment of his peers. And when things went wrong, he always appeared totally in command of what he once described as his "B game".

There has been little sign of those skills, however, in a season in which his best finish was tied eighth in the Houston Open. His best European finish has been a share of 14th place in the Scottish Open earlier this month.

Tom Watson once observed that a prerequisite of successful scrambling is good putting. And Harrington, once the supreme scrambler, was gravely undermined in this context by a blade which delivered 30 putts on Thursday and 32 on Friday at Killarney. By his elevated standards, this was at least six too many. Meanwhile, his loss to the tournament was immense, especially when Open champion Darren Clarke had also missed the cut in the previous three-ball.

A drop to 64th in the world rankings means that Harrington has to rely on his status as a member of last October's Ryder Cup team to join Irish colleagues in this week's lucrative Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. If the current malaise proves to be temporary, he may win another Major. Either way, it would seem rash to bet against him capturing further tour titles. But even if he fails on both counts, there remains an incalculable contribution to golf, at home and abroad.

On his patient quest of Major success, he would always point to the improvements in his ball-striking and tournament performances, year on year, while learning from the success of other players at the highest level. "I played a lot of practice rounds with Michael Campbell," he said, "and when he won the 2005 US Open, it certainly had me thinking, 'so this is what it takes to win a Major'. You need that familiarity."

Only Harrington knows the protracted, painstaking process which went into making him a Major champion. What we, the public, saw were extraordinary happenings on the 72nd hole at Carnoustie, where a seemingly disastrous double-bogey delivered the unlikely outcome of a play-off place against Sergio Garcia and ultimate success.

A year later, with a wrist injury threatening to scupper his prospect of even defending the title at Royal Birkdale, he stormed to a magnificent victory. And within three weeks, he looked totally bewildered at his manager Adrian Mitchell after another stunning display had delivered the PGA Championship.

We can only speculate as to how he must have felt while attempting to absorb those momentous happenings. Having vowed he wouldn't become a one-Major wonder, here he was with three of them in the space of 13 months. Then, having climbed the mountain, he chose to search for higher peaks rather than simply savour the view.

Within days of his triumph at Oakland Hills, he had talked twice on the phone to Torrance, about "problems with his game". Apparently the Scot had noticed that his address position wasn't good during the final round, which is why his driving was sub-standard.

Torrance added: "He always discusses things with me while he's away; things to work on before his next tournament. And winning his second Major in three weeks doesn't change that." So, had he ever been fully satisfied with his pupil? "Yes," he replied. "His performance in the Open at Birkdale was unbelievable, especially the back nine which was as good as I've ever seen from anyone."

Three years on, the veteran coach was at Killarney, looking at his star pupil in trouble. He has too much respect, even affection for Harrington to point fingers about swing tinkering, but his deep concern was obvious.

"Is that all there is?" Peggy Lee once sang. Maybe Harrington has climbed his mountain and there will be no more conquered peaks. If that's the case, he has already had a career beyond our wildest dreams. But he clearly believes there is more to come. And, sadly for a dear old friend, it will have to be in the company of another figure on the driving range.

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