'Part of me has become more cynical' - Padraig Harrington reflects on his 20 years as a professional
Ireland's three-time Major champion Pádraig Harrington is embarking on his 21st season as a Tour pro and is undaunted by the challenge of competing in an arena dominated by young stars who have emerged as golf's new elite
Published 09/01/2016 | 02:30
This is Pádraig Harrington in 1996, the year he makes his debut on the European Tour. He is in South Africa. The date is Sunday, February 25.
He's phoning home using a payphone - no internet, Skype, or mobile phones in those days - to tell his family how he has played in the FNB Players Championship in Durban.
When his mother, Breda, comes on the line, Harrington blurts out his news:
"You'll never believe this mum, I was terrible. I just hit it everywhere. I was really terrible, but I finished 49th. I won £1,480, they are just giving it away."
And right there and then, Harrington is a believer. He can play on this Tour. He can earn money playing badly, and he knows he can play much, much better.
This is Pádraig Harrington, 2015.
"A part of me has become cynical.
"When I came out on Tour and for 10-15 years on Tour, a new guy would come out on Tour and I'd look at him, and I'd go, 'God, how can I compete with him. Look at the way he hits the golf ball. Wow . . . He's good . . .'
"Now, a new guy comes out on Tour and I go, 'Wow, that guy hits the ball well. God, this Tour is just going to beat him up, pull him apart. I wonder what he's going to be like in three or four years out here? This place is going to tear that lad apart'."
Such is the voice of the grizzled veteran, aged 44, having experienced the highs and lows through two decades and over 600 tournaments, with 29 victories worldwide, including three Major championships.
The wide-eyed innocence may have evaporated, but I'm thinking he's not really as 'cynical' as he says. Certainly not in terms of retaining a positive belief that he can be competitive in 2016.
"Thankfully, I believe I can get better as a player. I haven't lost that. I'm just a little bit more worn down by it all, but I do believe I'm going to have a great year next year.
"I'm nicely working away at things. Physically I haven't lost anything, so it's a question of mentally being there. I think I can do well, but a lot will come down to the putting," he says.
Harrington was the Roger Bannister of Irish golf, the man who broke the mental and metaphysical barriers that were a factor in denying successive generations of our finest players the accolade of Major champion.
And, being Harrington, not only did he do it once, which would have been fantastic, but he reeled off three Majors in a golden spell between July 2007 and August 2008.
After that, just as with Bannister following his epic destruction of the four-minute mile barrier at Iffley Road, Oxford in May 1954, the golfing breakthrough sparked a hell-for-leather chase to follow in Harrington's footsteps.
In January 2007, the ledger was in the debit section: 'Ireland - Nil Majors.' By December 2015, the balance sheet reflected a very healthy: 'Ireland - Nine Majors'. Are there more Majors to be won by Irish players? Indubitably.
Is there one more left in Harrington? The odds may be stacked against him but, as he says himself, after 60 holes at St Andrews, he led the Open Championship only for a lost ball to halt his charge.
And don't forget - in 2015 he was a winner on the PGA Tour in the Honda Classic.
He also remains fascinated by golf and, if all goes well, Harrington intends to still be hitting balls and practising when he's 80.
There is, however, no doubt that much of 2015 was hard work.
It is a universal principle of the game at all levels that good golf is easy in the sense that it generates a positive energy within the player. The play flows from hole to hole. It doesn't have to be spectacular but the stress levels are greatly reduced.
Contrast that with struggling for scores, battling to make the cut. This kind of golf even Pádraig Harrington finds gruelling.
"There is nothing harder in this game than shooting par scores, because you're always on the cut line, you're always grinding. You're never going forward.
"It is hugely more mentally draining than when you're shooting 68. Shooting 68 and 67s, good things are happening to you. It's a lot easier, I can tell you.
"Like, myself and Ernie Els played in Malaysia there, the last tournament of the year. I was giving him a ribbing. The two of us were in the exact same boat," he reflects.
"The two of us were grinding it out, killing ourselves, shooting 72s. We weren't working half as hard shooting 67s."
A combination of the toll all that battling was taking, and the need to get a meniscus tear in his right knee repaired, caused Harrington to take caddie Ronan Flood's advice and finish the 2015 season earlier than he originally intended.
This allowed him time for the operation and an eight-week break before resuming at this week's Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii.
He will stay on for the Sony Open in Honolulu next week.
"Hawaii is too far to go for just one tournament, but the Tournament of Champions is just what any golfer needs to start the year - four competitive rounds with no cut," says Harrington.
The Dubliner is well aware that 20 years for any competitive sportsman is a landmark, and it is timely to take an overview of this champion golfer's journey to date.
Reviewing Harrington's career in five-year blocks shows his progression from rookie pro in 1996 through the learning and developmental stages which culminated in his peak success of 2007-2008.
Phase One - 1996-2000
Wins - 4
Peugeot Spanish Open (1996);
Irish PGA Championship (1998);
Brazil Sao Paulo 500 Years Open (2000); Turespana Masters (2000)
"My first two years I went out on Tour and I thought I'd finish 70th or 80th in the Order of Merit.
"That was success. That was what I was aiming for, to keep my card. Not to keep my card at 125, because that's very stressful, but be comfortable out on Tour. I was way ahead of expectation. I won after 10 weeks.
"What I did with that was I didn't question it. It was like I had the blinkers on. I just ran with the ball. Just never looked around and just kept playing. I finished 11th in the Order of Merit the first year.
"Second year, I finished eighth to prove that the first year wasn't a fluke. That was my sole goal the second year. At the end of two years, I got a bit of a shock. I played the US Open at the Olympic Club in the middle of '98. I chipped and putted as well as I could and I finished 27th and played well.
"I walked away from that and thought, 'As good as I'm doing, I'm not really good enough to compete at the highest level here'. And that's when I made the decision to go to Bob Torrance.
"Every player he had was a good ball striker, and that's what I lacked."
Phase Two - 2001-2005
Wins - 11
Volvo Masters (2001);
Dunhill Links Championship (2002); Target World Challenge (2002);
BMW Asian Open (2003);
Deutsche Bank-SAP Open TPC of Europe (2003);
Omega Hong Kong Open (2004);
Linde German Masters (2004);
Irish PGA Championship (2004, 2005);
The Honda Classic (2005);
The Barclays Championship (2005) "I tend to win when I need to win. I won in '96 when I needed to win. Then I started working on stuff. I won again in 2000 to get into the Masters.
"Then I had another bit of a lull. I had a lot of second places. I had just enough wins to keep me going. They came just at the right time to keep things going along nicely.
"After 2004 I've had these second places, I've had a few wins, and I've now made it my goal to win a Major. How am I going to win a Major?
"Every time I go to the US, I was being slightly thrown out of my comfort zone, and this is the problem when you're not a member of the Tour. 2005 was when I took my card in the US.
"That period is me very much learning how to contend, and all those wins were big for me.
"The goal when I went to the US was I've got to win an event. Then once I've won an event, I've got to win a Major."
Phase Three: 2006-2010
Wins - 11
Alfred Dunhill Links Championship (2006);
Dunlop Phoenix Open (Japan, 2006);
Irish PGA Championship (2007); Hassan 11 Trophy, Morocco (2007); Irish Open (2007);
136th Open Championship (2007);
Irish PGA Championship (2008);
137th Open Championship (2008);
US PGA Championship (2008);
Irish PGA Championship (2009); Iskandar Johor Open, Malaysia (2010)
"The biggest thing for me winning the Majors was the US Open at Winged Foot in 2006.
"I had three pars to win that one. Nobody knows that. I had three pars to win there and never played golf like it.
"I'd missed every putt in the last round and still had three pars to win, but when I walked off the golf course, it was the first time I played a Major where I thought, 'I could have won that, totally within myself and not relying on outside agencies or getting lucky'.
"As for 2007-2008, the interesting thing about that is I had less chances to win. Up to 2007, I had something like 29 second places.
"I've had an unbelievable conversion rate. You could say I had a poor conversion rate before 2007, but from 2007 I didn't get myself in contention anywhere near as much, but when I did, I won.
"I did play well in 2009, and in terms of performance, 2009 was my most consistent year, scoring-wise, tournaments wise."
Phase Four: 2011-2015
Wins - 3
PGA Grand Slam of Golf (2012); Indonesia Open (2014);
The Honda Classic (2015)
"The change in 2010 when the grooves came in (change from the so-called 'box' grooves on clubs) was a huge change to me.
"At the end of 2011 I decided to change coach to Pete Cowen in the middle of the year, at the PGA.
"What happened was that in the Irish Open in Killarney, I finished second.
"What was killing me was I'd go to the range with Bob, and I'd stand there and I'd hit the ball phenomenal. And then I'd go on the golf course and I'd hit big wides with my driver.
"I wanted to know what was physically breaking down and Bob couldn't give me the answer because he wasn't on the golf course. So I went to Pete Cowen.
"2012 was my best year statistically tee to green, but I started putting badly. I got into a habit that year of always challenging my reading of the greens. Once I started challenging it, I lost confidence in it. I hit poor putts.
"This year has been the first year that has changed.
"The first note in my notes for the year was, 'I read the greens great' and funny enough by the end of the year, I'd stopped second-guessing my reading.
"Every year is judged, career-wise, looking back, by wins. When did I get a win? I look at it and go, 'Yeah, I won this year'. But for me it was a poor year.
"The only other event I performed in apart from the Honda, was the Open, But. as I said, I'm in a good place. In terms of my golf swing physically I swing the golf club better than I ever have.
"I love the golf. I love the idea of it. Yeah, I can get frustrated at the end of a round of golf but I love competing and all that and trying to find a new way. It keeps me motivated."