Wednesday 26 November 2014

Karl MacGinty: End of an era, but not the end of the world

Padraig Harrington needs rest and renewed faith after a fruitless year in pursuit of former glories

Published 12/11/2013 | 01:00

Padraig Harrington needs to rediscover his ‘A’ game
Padraig Harrington needs to rediscover his ‘A’ game

IT may be the end of an era for Padraig Harrington but it's certainly not the end of the world for the flagging warhorse! Harrington reached the end of his 2013 campaign exhausted by the relentless yet fruitless pursuit of former glories.

Marooned at 113th in the global rankings, he needs a mini-miracle in the new year to gain admission to the Accenture Match Play in Tucson and the Cadillac at Doral, two early-season World Golf Championships that annually give the elite a head start on the rank and file.

Since Harrington's five-year exemption into April's Masters and June's US Open has expired, he must scrap with the foot soldiers for fewer ranking points from regular Tour events to gain admission to the next two Major championships.

Unless, of course, his exalted status as a three-times Major champion earns Harrington an invite to Augusta.

As for winning a place on Paul McGinley's Ryder Cup team, Harrington needs to get back onto the professional high road to bring Gleneagles into the equation.

Of most pressing concern right now is how he can fulfil the conditions of membership of both the US and European Tours from outside the world's elite top-50 and beyond the World Golf Championship pale.

As he admitted in Turkey on Sunday, Harrington is "badly struggling with the numbers next year" as he tries to find a way of meeting the target of 13 European Tour events on top of the 15 he must play on the 2013/14 US schedule before next September's Tour Championship.

HEADACHE

Of course, he remains eligible for the British Open at Hoylake and US PGA, which count on both Tours, but squeezing another 11 regular European tournaments into his schedule is going to be quite a headache.

Already, this situation has impacted on Harrington's stated intention of taking an extended winter break. Instead of the eight to 10 weeks earlier envisaged, he's now likely to tee it up at the Volvo Champions in Durban on January 9, leaving him just seven weeks' uninterrupted rest.

Though considering another short sojourn after Durban, the temptation to play in Abu Dhabi on January 16, two weeks before his likely US bow in Phoenix, will be hard to resist, especially with so many world ranking points on offer. Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose already have committed to playing in the oil-rich emirate.

In a revealing recent series of blogs on his own website, Harrington has come across as frustrated, fed-up and most of all fatigued. "I'm in need of a break," he conceded on the eve of the Turkish Open. "I've played a lot over the years and feel it's catching up with me."

From one of sport's great optimists, a guy who'd typically view a raging hurricane as a good opportunity to go kite-flying, his recent words have been laden heavily with pathos.

There's more to Harrington's exhaustion than the 28 tournaments he's played this year. Exhaustive work down the years with consultants and fitness experts has kept the 42-year-old in good physical condition.

Instead, his mental strength has been sapped and his confidence eroded by serious issues with his short game and his putting. Stripped of certainty around and on the green, one suspects Harrington came very close to breaking point.

His descent from the heady highs of August 2008, when he reached No 3 in the world after winning his third Major in 13 months, has been well documented. Today, he's striking the ball as well as ever but over the past two years his greatest strengths became his curse.

While the 2010 ban on ultra-sharp box grooves sorely affected his wedge play, it does not adequately explain the continuing decline in 2012 and 2013 of his once Houdini-like ability to 'scramble' out of trouble.

Of even greater concern has been the impotence of his putter, once the deadliest weapon in Harrington's bag.

With his recent admission that he indeed had the yips last year, he offered credible explanation at last for his controversial decision to take up the belly putter in May.

Yet as Harrington concedes, at the heart of the matter was his inability to trust his green reading, leading inevitably to difficulty committing to the stroke.

That he could read putts perfectly well for Ross Fisher at the 2010 Ryder Cup shows, however, that there's nothing wrong with his eyesight. Only the faith is lacking.

Some suggest a new caddie, with infallible green-reading skills, may be the solution to his ills, yet such talk does grave disservice to his friend and brother-in-law Ronan Flood and the attributes, across a wide range from common sense to companionship, he brings to the partnership.

It also evades the single biggest issue with Harrington: a lack of trust in his own instincts and judgment, remarkable though that may seem for a man who singlehandedly bridged a 60-year credibility gap for Irish golfers at the Majors by winning the 2007 British Open.

While he won imperiously at Royal Birkdale and with true grit at Oakland Hills in 2008, Carnoustie remains arguably the most astonishing leap of faith by any Irish sportsman. However, even this great warrior was almost broken by that most tortuous of all golfing fates – death by a thousand putts.

Having to roll up his sleeves and scrap tooth and nail for rank and privilege may seem like paradise lost for Harrington but there's purity in the fight he faces.

He's no longer embroiled in a withering, week-by-week battle against the dying of the light – like his desperate chase for the top-10 finish in Turkey that would have qualified Harrington for this week's $8m Race to Dubai climax.

The Ryder Cup, the world's elite top-50, a place at the Masters, are of nebulous consequence now, giving Harrington, once rested, an opportunity in the new year to restore his faith by simply doing what he does best – play golf!

Irish Independent

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