'It's pretty simple for me now -- I just have to win'
Harrington aware he has work cut out to get back to the top
Published 09/01/2014 | 02:30
A new chapter opens today in the career of Padraig Harrington when he plays the first competitive shots of what promises to be a year of discovery.
Five years and five months after capturing his third Major at the 2008 US PGA Championship at Oakland Hills, one of the most decorated players in golf must roll up his sleeves and scrap for privileges he once enjoyed by right.
No longer exempt for April's Masters, the US Open or golf's elite World Championships, Harrington's horizon has narrowed to the point where even his prospects of making Paul McGinley's Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles next September are too slim to serve as motivation.
Wallowing at No 134 in the world rankings, Harrington (43) had no need to make new year resolutions, admitting only one option is left to him if he's to force his way back into the sport's upper echelons. "It's pretty straightforward," he said during a pause in his preparations for today's first round of the Volvo Golf Champions at Durban Country Club.
"I just have to go and win. I could do with moving up into the world's top-50 and that will be taken care of by winning."
Yet Harrington has hoisted only two trophies in five seasons ... at the Asian Tour's Johor Open in Malaysia in October 2010 and in the four-man PGA Grand Slam of Golf 16 months ago, so winning no longer is a habit.
He's come through rough times in the past two years. In 2012, the Dubliner overcame a dose of the yips so severe, he admitted recently his putter occasionally felt "like an electric eel in my hands."
Intensive work last year, including a four-month spell using the controversial belly putter, has brought Harrington to the point where he's once again comfortable on the green.
Meanwhile, he's happy an adjustment to the bounce of his wedges will help sharpen his short game and allow him make the most of his ball striking, which, he insists, is consistently better now than at any other time in his career.
Yet Harrington still is not in a position to confidently predict a return to winning ways over the next two weeks in Durban or Abu Dhabi, or next month in Phoenix, Pebble Beach or Riviera Country Club. Physically, he's probably in better condition many elite professional athletes of his age -- but Harrington has reached a mental crossroads in his career.
With three Major titles in his trophy cabinet and a vast wealth of knowledge and experience in the arena, he no longer is driven by that most potent force in sport -- fear!
"I'm in better shape now than I was 10 years ago," Harrington says. "Physically, it's not an issue. It's a mental thing. I'm not trying to become the player I was, I'm trying to handle being the player I've become."
Explaining that the majority of careers in elite professional golf last 20 years "whether you start at 17, 24 or 36," Harrington goes on: "You've three years becoming a player as a pro; then you've some good years; followed by some great years and then you have a tail-off.
"No doubt, the last couple of those 20 years are somewhat of a swansong. On that basis, I still have more wins in me on my way out. Yet they'd be more like Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters or Jose Maria Olazabal in recent years -- everyone's delighted, but it's a swansong.
"I'm trying to break that mould," he insisted. "I'm trying to figure out a way of performing with the different outlook I have now. I'm not the person I was 10 or 15 years ago, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm any better or worse. I'm just different," added Harrington, insisting he'll feel butterflies and adrenaline if he gets into contention next Sunday.
"I'll certainly be up for it," says the Irishman. Yet he's been around too long and seen too much to get nervous on Wednesday or Thursday at tournaments.
Even a career Grand Slam, though spectacular, "is not going to change my life. That's the ultimate thing. Once you've had success at the Majors, you realise it doesn't define you as a person.
"I chased this all my life. I'm absolutely over the moon that I won three and I want to win more. Yet I know the exponential of winning the next one is going to be nowhere near the winning of the first or the second."
If he no longer feels panic if things don't go smoothly in the run-up to tournaments, Harrington doesn't yet know if a more relaxed and self-assured demeanour actually might benefit him.
"I could be better this way," he says with a shrug. "Plenty of players would argue they play better if relaxed. Maybe I will too. All I'm saying is that in the past, I'd a different way of doing it."
Miguel Angel Jimenez, who celebrated his 50th birthday last Sunday by flying from Spain to South Africa for this week's tournament, didn't pause for breath yesterday when asked what motivates him to remain competitive.
"Win, win, win," he said emphatically. "I keep doing what I do because I love to compete with the best and I want to win. As long as I am confident I can win tournaments, I will still be here."
Jimenez, who shattered his tibia in a skiing accident just over 12 months ago yet returned to the winner's enclosure for the 18th time in Hong Kong last month, still dreams of going to Gleneagles with his golf clubs and not as one of McGinley's vice-captains.
Harrington has no such luxury. "Thoughts of qualifying for the Ryder Cup team are irrelevant where I am at the moment," he admitted. "Realistically, the only way I'm making that team is to win a number of events."
That's just one of several pressing reasons why Harrington desperately needs to get that winning feeling again.
VOLVO GOLF CHAMPIONS,
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