Harrington 'trying hard to try less'
IT'S like one of those Hollywood disaster movies. Our hero is in the cockpit of an airliner, all the dials whirling as he plummets towards earth at terminal velocity.
Or is it the control room of a submarine, rivets popping under pressure like bullets as it plunges into the abyss?
Okay, okay, it's only golf and nobody dies out there, but try telling that to Padraig Harrington.
No question, this guy should be living the dream. At age 40, the Dubliner has a loving, healthy family and, with three Major championships on the kitchen table at home in Rathmichael, he has made enough money to last him several lifetimes.
Even if he never wins another tournament, Harrington's place is forever safe as one of the greatest competitors in Irish sporting history.
Yet since winning the PGA Championship at Oakland Hills in August 2008, his third Major title in a Tiger-esque 13 months, Harrington has become trapped in a harrowing downward spiral.
If his rise to the peak of world golf was epic, the speed of Harrington's descent has been frightening. In a nutshell, the "massive level of expectation" he took from Oakland Hills morphed into pressure.
The stress became so great on Harrington as he tumbled down the world ladder in 2011, that it caused alarming fissures in that great bedrock of his game: putting.
A career-high third on the global ladder in August 2008, Harrington slipped out of the all-important world top 50 last June after 11 unbroken years among golf's elite.
At that point, the screw really began to turn on the Irishman, and the walls have been closing in on him ever since.
Currently 89th in the rankings, Harrington must fight his way back up to 64th in his first three events this year to make the field for the Accenture World Match Play by the February 12 deadline.
He then has, at most, another three events to get back into the top 50 if he's to play in the second WGC of 2012, the Cadillac Championship at Doral in March; all of which is crucial to his prospects of making the Ryder Cup in September.
Harrington has probably not been under as much pressure going into his first tournament of the year (this week's Volvo Golf Champions at The Links in Fancourt, South Africa) since making his Tour debut in Durban in February 1996.
After what he readily concedes was the worst season of his career in 2011, Harrington shows trademark defiance by insisting he's now ready to break the cycle of despair.
Revealing that he created "a nice bit of peace for myself on the golf course" in the final two events of an otherwise head-wrecking season, he credits this to the newest member of his backroom team, Jim Murphy, an American psychologist and creator of the 'Inner Excellence' concept.
A significant breakthrough in his swing (he had been trying for years to find the physical reasons why he had missed the fairway right on the 72nd hole at the 2002 British Open in Muirfield and again at Carnoustie in 2007) gives Harrington further cause to say: "I've had far less soul-searching this winter than any other."
Only the heartless would deny him these slivers of hope as he sets off today in pursuit of the tournament victory he needs to pull out of his crash-dive.
Yet the past three years inevitably have had such a jarring effect on Harrington's confidence, his rehabilitation is likely to require much more than the simple flick of a mental switch.
So, what on earth happened to turn this world-beater into an also-ran?
Much blame has been attributed to the swing changes he made late in 2008, but, in my view, their effect on Harrington, a player who has tinkered throughout his career, is overstated.
Sure, his action went right out of kilter during the first six months of 2009. Yet when he eventually linked up with coach Bob Torrance on Monday at that year's British Open in Turnberry, a six-hour remedial session put the Irishman firmly back on track.
Three weeks later, Harrington was in contention going into Sunday at the PGA Championship, his chances of retaining that title scotched only by a calamitous eight on the par-three eighth hole.
Though 2009 was Harrington's first season without a win since 1999, he still was No 5 in the rankings entering 2010, the year his decline really began.
Irrefutably, the banning of box-grooves on wedges and mid-irons from that January had a "massive effect" on Harrington's game, effectively limiting the advantage his famed 'Picasso touch' once gave him around the greens.
Feeling the need to devote more time to his short game and less to his swing inevitably led to friction with Torrance and they split at July's Irish Open.
Also, as his results suffered, Harrington's patience and composure were found wanting.
Last November, he realised that even though he could recite Dr Bob Rotella's mantras like the Rosary after their 14 years working together, he no longer applied them on the course.
That Rotella's teachings do work was spectacularly underscored at July's British Open, when he helped temperamental Ulsterman Darren Clarke to fulfil his Major dream.
Yet Harrington found himself mentally ill-equipped last year to deal with mounting pressure after dropping out of the world top 50. "I was slipping down the world rankings and fighting hard, but fighting is not what you need to be doing at that stage. In fact, it makes it far tougher."
Though satisfied with his putting action and stressing he's never read greens better since undergoing his fourth laser eye surgery in June, Harrington believes his poor form placed intense "stress" on his putting.
"When you have a good start to the year and are riding high with confidence, your putts go in a lot easier. In contrast, when you're trying too hard, everything gets that little bit tougher to do. They seem to count for a lot more."
Harrington's putting stats, though still above average, slipped significantly in 2011, costing him roughly one stroke more per round more than in 2008, yet he sees no need to resort to the belly putter like Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson.
Though he's hitting the ball further than ever and recently has been striping it from tee to green, doubts about Harrington's wedge play persist, a view seemingly endorsed by PGA Tour stats relating to his performance from 50 to 70 yards.
In 2007 and 2008, he was first from this distance in the US, on average hitting his ball to less than eight feet, while in 2010 he was 42nd with an average distance of more than 16 feet to the hole.
"That's not relevant, I could have had only 20 shots from that distance all year," Harrington says forcefully. "You know, statistics are like a lamp post to a drunk man, they can be used more for support than illumination."
In cinematic terms, maybe that unforgettable scene from 'Planes, Trains and Automobiles' is more appropriate to 2011, with Harrington tangled up in thought and theory, heading the wrong way up the freeway towards two speeding trucks.
The Dubliner himself summed up his principal failing in 2011 with a glorious paradox. "Overall during the year, I was trying too hard. I need to try hard to try less." Good luck!
Volvo Golf Champions,
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