Padraig faces huge task in 2012 to emulate Tiger’s breakthrough moment
Published 06/12/2011 | 05:00
TIGER WOODS has found a glimmer of light in the darkness, but for Padraig Harrington the outlook appears as bleak and desolate as a harsh Irish winter.
Woods will draw enormous confidence from Sunday's one-stroke victory over Zach Johnson at the Chevron World Challenge.
That there were just 18 players in the field at last weekend's end-of-season fundraiser for Tiger's own charitable foundation mattered not one whit to Woods, as he took his greatest step yet on the road to rehabilitation.
This win, inevitably, will exorcise the demons of self-doubt that hounded Tiger in the 749 days since his previous tournament success at the JBWere Australian Masters in '09.
The ferocity of the air punch Woods threw on 18 and the banshee scream which burst from his throat after landing the second of two closing birdies that felled Johnson at Thousand Oaks said it all.
This breakthrough success is as significant as any of Tiger's 83 wins as a professional. We had not seen as wild a reaction from Woods since he landed that famous putt at the 72nd hole of the 2008 US Open to force a play-off with Rocco Mediate and set up the most celebrated of his 14 Major championship wins.
In stark contrast, the worst of Harrington's 16 years as a professional ended with barely a whimper at the Hong Kong Open as the Dubliner fell leagues short in his bid to make the top 60 in the European Tour's Money List and the field for this week's Dubai World Championship.
While Woods enters his winter break safely back in the world's elite top 50 at No 21, and looking forward to being a contender once again in 2012, Harrington can look forward to further harsh realities in 2012.
Failing to qualify for the European Tour's end-of-season showpiece for the first time since his professional debut in 1996 cost Harrington an opportunity to halt his slide down the world rankings before the year's end.
Having missed the bus back into the global top 50, Harrington will be under intense pressure to hit the ground running in January if he is to have any chance of making it into February's Accenture World Match Play Championship or the Cadillac at Doral in March.
The world's top 64 players on Monday, February 14 qualify for the World Match Play, while Harrington will have to win back his place in the top 50 a fortnight later to play at Doral -- a tall order indeed, given his recent form.
Harrington's proud record of having played in every World Golf Championship since the series first took place in 1999 fizzled out when he failed to make last month's HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
Missing the opportunity to share in the monster US$8.5m purses on offer both in Tucson and Doral would have serious consequences for the Irishman in his efforts to qualify for September's Ryder Cup and fulfil the conditions of membership of both the European and US PGA Tours.
Of course, Harrington's sensational back-to-back wins at the British Open and US PGA in 2008 qualify him for all four Majors until 2013 at least ... but failing to make those two WGCs in the spring would make the road back to the top very rocky indeed.
The primary ambition for Harrington in January must be to win as many world-ranking points as possible, so he is likely to return to action at the Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa on January 19, then join Woods in a star-studded field in Abu Dhabi the following week.
After that, Harrington faces a tough choice: either stay in the Arabian Gulf for the Qatar Masters and/or Dubai Desert Classic or take a week off after Abu Dhabi and head once again for Pebble Beach and the AT&T National Pro-Am.
With the cut-off for the World Match Play on the Monday after Dubai (and Pebble Beach), it would make most sense for Harrington to stay in the Middle East, where appearance fees boost considerably the world-ranking points on offer at these early season events.
Yet failing to visit his usual early season haunts in the States (Pebble and Riviera) would make it more difficult for Harrington to rack up the 15 PGA Tour events he must play in 2012, especially if he falls short in his bid to play at Doral and Tucson.
This is typical of the quickening downward spiral in which Harrington has become entangled.
Last weekend's display in Hong Kong, where he finished 51st -- 11 shots shy of the minimum seventh he needed to qualify for Dubai -- is typical of recent efforts by Harrington to cross hurdles he would barely have noticed a year or so ago.
Indeed, performances like this make one fear for his prospects of delivering the Tiger-style breakthrough he so badly needs in the new year.
No doubt, Harrington will benefit from the break he takes with his family in Dubai this week and it would be surprising the Dubliner didn't avail of the opportunity to do further bedding-in work with his new swing coach Pete Cowen.
For sure, his decision after last summer's Irish Open to break with Bob Torrance was just one wrench for Harrington in a traumatic year, which began with his harsh and controversial disqualification from Abu Dhabi hours after shooting a superb first-round 65.
Harrington's bad luck continued when he pulled a neck muscle in his warm-up on Thursday morning at Augusta National, spoiling his US Masters. Then he twisted his knee at Quail Hollow, causing him to miss the BMW PGA Championship.
Yet, by far the most worrying aspect of Harrington's season has been a decline in his performance around and, especially, on the greens. For example, he rattled up 129 putts over four rounds in Hong Kong.
For the first time in nine years, Harrington has dropped outside of the top 10 in average putts on the European Tour, down to a lowly 50, while the number of putts he has taken per green in regulation in 2011 has shown a similar decline.
Judging by comments Harrington has made at various times in the past six months, he has found difficulty in trusting his reads and committing to the line of putts.
The erosion of certainty or confidence is all too typical of players entering their 40s -- as evidenced by the decision of Ernie Els (42) and Phil Mickelson (41) to take up the belly putter this season, with the South African admitting: "There have been gremlins in my head this year with the putting."
Retief Goosen and Vijay Singh also have leaned heavily on the longer 'crutch' in recent years.
One fears Harrington, who turned 40 in August, will need to be as tough mentally as Singh to hold back the tide of time -- it's going to take uncommon patience for him to be able to shoot the lights out on the days his putter is hot and simply shoot the breeze when it's not.
Yes, a winning Woods is back, but he has returned to a different, less deferential world and is unlikely ever to exercise such domination over his sport in the future.
Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Keegan Bradley and Graeme McDowell are among those who won't blink at the sight of the famous red shirt on Sunday afternoon.
While Harrington's Major championship feats will forever command respect, one fears the Dubliner has allowed too much precious time to ebb away since August 2008 to inspire confidence, either his own or that of others, in his ability to regain such starry heights.