independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Harrington's escape from Bermuda Triangle

IT was as friendly as countless other midweek fourballs played on the paradise island of Bermuda.

Yet the air-punch Padraig Harrington threw after sinking an eight-foot putt for par on Port Royal's treacherous 16th hole was as intense as anything you'd see on Sunday afternoon at the British Open or the Masters.

Harrington and fellow Major champions Webb Simpson, Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley chatted, joked and high-fived their way around the golf course during the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, firing off as much banter as birdies.

For the 41-year-old Dubliner, however, clinching his first victory in more than two years on the professional fairways was worth more even than the $600,000 winner's cheque he earned for 36 holes of golf in tropical sunshine.

"It's great to see some of the old fight was there," said Harrington, neatly capturing the enormity of that eight-foot putt on 16 after a couple of fruitless, hugely frustrating years in which doubt gnawed into the very soul of his game -- his putting.

Harrington's opening 66 on Port Royal offered further evidence of the huge strides he's made from tee to green over the past 12 months. Yet defending the two-stroke lead he took into the final 18 holes and clinching victory under the gaze of three of America's Ryder Cup aces was going to make last Wednesday in Bermuda as big as any given Sunday on Tour.

Since clinching a sensational third Major title in 13 months at the 2008 US PGA, the Dubliner has failed to win on either the European or American circuits.

His solitary success at the Asian Tour's Iskandar-Johor Open in October 2010 was bleak reward for a player who admits he'd begun to think after Oakland Hills that winning Majors might be easy.

Blighted

At first, Harrington had been blighted by an ill-advised swing change in the winter of 2008.

That problem was salved briefly midway through 2009, but differences between the player and his venerable Scottish coach Bob Torrance over his technique seemed to leave Harrington in a twilight zone until they parted in July 2011.

No question, he's found clarity and fresh impetus with English swing guru Pete Cowen and Harrington's performance stats support his view that he's struck the golf ball better and further this year than ever before -- which made the gremlins that crept into his putting, once the staple of Harrington's game, all the more exasperating.

For sure, he was one of just 12 players to make the cut at all four Majors in 2012, picking up a share of eighth place at the Masters and fourth in the US Open.

Still, he missed as much as half a dozen birdie chances on the Sunday afternoon at Augusta and it was difficult to shake off the feeling in San Francisco that the Harrington of old would have greased Simpson over the weekend at Olympic.

Even if Jose Maria Olazabal seemed to take a little too much pleasure in overlooking Harrington for a captain's pick at Medinah, there was absolutely no disputing his choice of Ian Poulter or rookie Nicolas Colsaerts for the two Ryder Cup wild cards.

One felt before Chicago and even during the opening two days of the Ryder Cup, as Europe's finest struggled to make putts under crushing pressure on slick Medinah greens, that Harrington was better off working on his game at home.

Still, after six successive Ryder Cup campaigns, it must have wounded this proud warhorse to sit out the greatest and most exciting of them all at Medinah.

After a couple of relatively subdued performances at the Dunhill Links and Portugal Masters, Harrington had expected to play this week's BMW Masters in Shanghai, until an unexpected invite came last weekend to replace the injured Ernie Els in Bermuda.

Beaten twice in play-offs at the Grand Slam of Golf in 2007 and '08, Harrington relished the chance to set the record straight at Port Royal. And that's precisely what he did on Wednesday, in a way which his critics would not have imagined possible.

Above all, Harrington's second-round 67, the imperious hat-trick of birdies he completed on the 13th hole and that clutch putt he holed for par on 16, will help banish many of the doubts even he must have felt.

Harrington now is infinitely better equipped for the test he'll face on grainy greens in Singapore (Nov 8-11) and Hong Kong (Nov 15-18) before his season ends in Dubai (Nov 22-25)... not to mention the challenge of next season's Major championships.

He has emerged from his own Bermuda Triangle.

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