Sport Golf

Thursday 21 August 2014

Harrington's road to hell

Three-time Major winner couldn’t have picked a worse time to switch to belly putter as his game lurches from one crisis to another

Karl MacGinty

Published 07/05/2013 | 05:00

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Padraig Harrington using the belly putter on his way to a disastrous two rounds at Quail Hollow last weekend

LESS than five years ago, Padraig Harrington was on such a roll, it looked as if he could win the Lotto without even buying a ticket. These days, he's more likely to pick all the right numbers and get a puncture on the way to the shop.

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There probably could have been no worse venue than Quail Hollow last week to try out a long putter for the first time in competition.

Rarely, if ever, have the pampered stars on the US circuit endured such badly scarred putting surfaces as those in Charlotte, where harsh weather and, reputedly, a gaffe by Tour agronomy staff took a heavy toll.

Making the decision to switch to the controversial belly putter was tough enough for Harrington, given his role as playing ambassador for the R&A and his outspoken support of the upcoming ban on 'anchoring'.

Trying to bed in this new method on such bumpy and unpredictable greens was a recipe for disaster, and the Dubliner duly plumbed new depths as a professional, finishing tied 155th and last with Greg Owen (on 11-over).

Over 36 nightmarish holes, Harrington missed no fewer than six putts of four feet or less, though the putter was not entirely to blame.

Calamitous

During Thursday's calamitous 80, for example, he waited until the seventh to find a fairway, while he hit only one green in regulation on the front nine and just six in all.

Despite his nightmare at Quail Hollow, it would make no sense at all for Harrington (41) to abandon the anchoring experiment this week, even if TPC Sawgrass, venue for the showpiece Players Championship, is not his happy hunting ground.

Harrington finished second at The Players in 2003 and again in 2004, when he purred home with a record-equalling birdie-eagle-par-birdie finish.

Yet since the event switched from March to May in 2007 and the Stadium Course was dug up and relaid with new drainage, and Bermuda grass sewn throughout, Harrington has not been comfortable there. He has made the cut just twice in five visits since 2007, in that time posting just one sub-par round, a 69 last May, followed by a 76 and yet another weekend off.

So, even an eternal optimist like Harrington will be hard-pressed not to view this week's tournament with trepidation. Of course, anchoring is still within the rules. When a traditionalist like Harrington resorts to such a dubious method, however, it smacks of desperation.

Back in August 2008, when he won a third Major title in 13 months at the US PGA, the Irishman was universally acknowledged as the greatest rival to a still-rampant Tiger.

Within months, however, his game disintegrated. A series of ill-fated swing changes in the winter of 2008 began the downward spiral, which became more dizzying late in the summer of 2011 as Harrington lost confidence in his putting, for so long a pillar of his game.

There have been several key moments in Harrington's head-spinning descent from Major championship heaven to golfing hell:

2009: SHORT BUT NOT SWEET

Harrington opened 2009 in a career-high third place in the world but his form dipped alarmingly in the first six months of the year on foot of swing changes made over the winter.

As he missed six cuts in seven events up to that year's British Open, seasoned observers wondered aloud why he had shortened his swing. Harrington strenuously denied this was the case, even when his coach Bob Torrance mentioned it to him at Turnberry.

Still, after six hours of remedial work with Torrance on the Monday of British Open week, Harrington's season turned around.

He finished second in the Bridgestone Invitational, contended strongly during his defence of the PGA title until a horror eight on Sunday at Hazeltine's par-three eighth hole and shot 13 of his 16 rounds at the subsequent FedEx Cup play-offs in the 60s. Harrington was a contender once again.

2010: OUT OF HIS GROOVE

A new rule banning square or box-grooves massively impacted on Harrington. The grooves on his wedges used be so sharp, they'd almost cut your finger. He was able to achieve spin and exercise uncanny control over his ball even from deep rough.

Requiring Harrington to play with the 'softer' V-grooves was like asking Picasso to use crayons. "That change cost me at least a shot a round," admits the player, who won the Johor Open on the Asian Tour in October 2010 but went close only once on the US or European circuits. Pointedly, he missed the cut in three of four Majors.

2011: HARDEST CUT OF ALL

Few imagined Harrington would ever break up with Torrance, his coach since 1997. Yet that fateful day came one July Saturday in Killarney.

Harrington, who had spiralled out of the world's elite top 50 the previous month, missed the cut by four strokes at the Irish Open, but friction had been growing for some time between the player and his coach over the direction he should go with his swing.

"He's going down one road that I think is wrong," said Torrance. "I've told him if he goes down too far, he won't come back ... you make changes in your 20s, but once you get to your 40s, it's too late."

The following month, Harrington linked up with English coach Pete Cowen, who was surprised to discover how little this highly technical player actually knew about his own swing.

Within a couple of months, Harrington was hitting the ball further and with more confidence... but, ironically, as he made big strides with his long game, serious issues began to emerge with his putting.

2012: WHAT'S MY LINE?

Harrington continued plummeting down the rankings as he struggled to trust his reading of the line of his putts. He arrived at Augusta in 96th place in the world and with an order from wife Caroline to ask Bernhard Langer for advice after suffering 'the heebeejeebies' on the greens.

Whatever Langer said, Harrington turned things around with an eighth-place finish at the Masters and then tied fourth at the US Open. Had he made birdie and not bogey at the final hole, he would have forced a play-off with Webb Simpson ... yet his putting had become too erratic for Harrington to build on that performance.

Unable to play in elite, dollar-rich, limited-field events because of his ranking, he failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup, breaking a string of six successive appearances back to '99.

2013: DEATH BY 1,000 PUTTS

Harrington's frustrations mounted as he hit the ball "better and longer than I ever have" but struggled to tuck away the shortest of putts. He'd shoot the lights out one day (his first-round 64 or Saturday 63 in Phoenix) but stall badly on the greens the next.

In March, he let the chance of a confidence-boosting victory in the Malaysian Open slip through his fingers as the heartbreak continued.

Currently 166th in Greens in Regulation on the PGA Tour, he is also 147th for scrambling and 162nd for strokes-gained putting, which says much about the state of his short game.

For months, Harrington has blamed his putting ills on a lack of trust in his reading of putts ... yet the belly putter solves problems with twitchy wrists and hands, and not the eye. By using it, he is publicly acknowledging the yips.

This is the turning of a new page for him. Forget Quail Hollow. Starting with Sawgrass, the weeks ahead probably will determine if he's entering the final chapter of a great career.

Irish Independent

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