'Pádraig would practise until he couldn't swing the club anymore'
In an extract from a new book on Pádraig Harrington, his former coach Bob Torrance tells Paul Keane about the pair's painful split
Bob Torrance sits by a radiator in the kitchen-cum-storage area of his modest golf school in Largs, north Ayrshire. It is a remote coastal outpost, about 25 miles north of a famous stretch of links land that includes Royal Troon and Prestwick Golf Clubs and 40 miles west of Glasgow, an unlikely place for one of the world's most renowned golf coaches to work. But it is his home.
A few hundred metres down the road from the driving range where he can be found most weekdays in daylight hours is the house he shares with his wife, June. It is hardly a 5-iron away from Largs Bay.
Hit another couple of decent drives up the A78, turn a corner or two and you'll find yourself at the entrance to Routenburn Golf Club, the charming old James Braid track where he first 'pured' a hickory-shafted cleek as a 16-year-old and fell instantly in love with the game. It is where, in 1963, he took on the role of greenkeeper/professional and, later, taught his famous son, Sam, the fundamentals of the game.
As he settles in his chair, it is close to freezing outside on a cloudless Friday morning. He is insulated by a warm green coat and tweed cap and begins to discuss the break-up of his coaching relationship with Pádraig Harrington.
The split was confirmed at the Irish Open in July 2011, two weeks after he'd missed the cut at the British Open, the Major competition he dominated in 2007 and 2008 with back-to-back wins. Disappointment is still there in Torrance's voice. "I was with Pádraig for nearly 15 years," he says. "I like Pádraig an awful lot, he's just like a son to me. I personally think, I'm 80 now, and I think in the back of his mind he's saying, 'Well, Bob's not going to be here forever so I need to do it myself'. I think that's what he's doing."
He refers to a disagreement they had about a part of Harrington's swing that the player wasn't happy with and wished to change, specifically the positioning of his right elbow. "But you see his right elbow never flew at all," contests Torrance, jumping straight into a stream of thought that has been bothering him for months. "I mean, there's a clip they show on the golf programme on TV, when they're introducing it, of him swinging and it's perfect."
Harrington's take on the break-up was that a beautiful friendship was sailing perilously close to the rocks. "Bob doesn't trust what I'm doing at the moment," he said in Killarney, and partly to avoid reducing their relationship to rubble, the partnership was dissolved.
Gordon Sherry, the great Scottish hope of the early 1990s and the star attraction of the 1995 Walker Cup team that Harrington was part of, is out in one of the driving bays in Largs, giving lessons to a promising looking young female player. Elsewhere, a couple of twenty-somethings with swings as smooth as butter stand around chatting, randomly swishing clubs to pass the time until Torrance is available to inspect their progress.
Their mentor is teaching golf for more than half a century and has seen it all from here. "That's where Lee Westwood used to land in the helicopter," he says, thrusting a finger out towards an area of the range.
In front of him upon a small table is an ashtray, the wrapping from a 20 pack of cigarettes, a mug, half full with coffee, and an opened packet of biscuits. Sliding out a fresh cigarette from the box, he gestures this time in another direction. He is pointing out towards the far end of the range which sits at the top of a hill overlooking the pretty town of Largs, made famous by the last Viking invasion in the UK in the 13th century, and the island of Cumbrae. "Myself and Pádraig were down there at the bottom of the range one night," he says.
"It was dark, very dark and blowing a blizzard of snow and sleet right out of the hill there. Pádraig says to me, 'You won't see many players practising in this, Bob'. I says, 'You'll nay see many coaches standing here either'. But if you're my pupil and you're willing to do that, then I'm willing to stand there. No matter what the weather is like. If Pádraig wanted to stand there for 10 hours, and he did, then I would stand there for 10 hours. You only get out of life what you put into it. The more you practise the better you get. If you're doing the right things with your practice you'll get better."
Practice has always been Harrington's poison. Over the years, those closest to him have pleaded with him to cut it back, to curb his instincts for self-flagellation. "A good worker is someone who does the right amount, the optimum -- I do too much," he admitted, shortly before officially replacing his coach of 10 years, Howard Bennett, with Torrance. "I hit too many balls. I spend too much time on the range and tire myself out. Everybody around me tries to stop me practising."
But he found a kindred spirit in his new coach who shared the same thirst for perfection and would happily match his man, hour for hour, on the range. Torrance's eyes had been opened to the value of hard graft by the career of nine-time Major winner Ben Hogan, the taciturn Texan who, by the Scot's estimation, was by some way the greatest golfer of all time.
"Outside of my family, it was the greatest thrill of my life to meet Hogan," he says, eyes lighting up as he tees up a story he loves to tell. "June said to me, 'You're always going on about Hogan, why don't you write him a letter?' I said, 'Well, I will', and I wrote him a letter. I wrote in that letter, 'You're the only man I ever seen that I couldn't have suggested something that would make you better'. I think everything he did was perfection. I said, 'My life's ambition is to meet you'. He wrote back and said, 'I would like to meet you'. I was at a tournament when June phoned me. She said, 'A letter is here from Ben Hogan'.
"I went straight home and went out to his place the following week. I visited him at his house and at Shady Oaks. You couldn't meet a nicer guy. His reputation was all wrong. You see he got a bad time when he was young with the press. He wasn't good when he was young. His ball-striking wasn't good. But he worked and he worked until he got it right."
There is much of Hogan in Harrington and it is a fitting coincidence that they both hail from towns called Dublin, either side of the Atlantic. As youngsters, both were told that they had brothers who were more talented.
In Hogan's case, it was suggested that even as a 19-year-old pro he wasn't as good as older brother, Royal, while Harrington accepted that his elder sibling, Fintan, had the best swing of the five Harrington boys. The pair would surely have concurred too about the absolute necessity of a good short game. Hogan practised his wedge play so much that he labelled the club his 'equaliser'.
As for Harrington, his precise short game was easily his most valuable asset throughout his career. "God gifts everybody in certain ways," says Paul McGinley, Harrington's golfing ally for the last 20 years. "Pádraig was born not alone with a great short game but the tenacity to go with it."
What really excited Torrance, though, as he got to work with Harrington was the prospect of overhauling his long game and turning a weak cutting motion into a powerful drawing action. "He would practise until he couldn't swing the club anymore," says Torrance, reminiscing on the same work ethic he had seen in Hogan who battled a vicious hook for years before making it in the game. "The work ethic, aye, Pádraig's work ethic definitely reminded you of Hogan. I mean, I'd go to Pádraig's house and we'd just hit balls all day, all day from his back door. He's a perfectionist, aye, he's got that in him."
In 1953, Torrance travelled the breadth of Scotland to the eastern coast of Angus to watch Hogan win the only British Open Championship he ever entered, at Carnoustie. More than 50 years later, in 2007, his shining light, Harrington, claimed the same title on the same stretch of punishing links. If ever there was a soldering experience in a relationship then this was it for teacher and pupil.
"Oh aye, it was brilliant, brilliant it was," says Torrance. "And Pádraig said that at the time. He said, 'I wanted to win here at Carnoustie. Because it's special for Bob. Because Hogan won here'."
Now, four and a half years on, Torrance is sitting in the room where it all started, talking about the end of the affair. He stresses that they are still friends, just not colleagues. "I mean I loved Pádraig and he loved me," he says. "I think maybe I took the place of his father after he died (in 2005). I'm only guessing that. But I know I treated him like a son." Asked if he saw the break up coming, Torrance instinctively replies, 'no'.
The word has barely tripped from his tongue when he retracts it and concedes that, yes, there were warning signs along the way, from as far out as 2009. He cites an incident during tests by biomechanics experts on Harrington's swing at the Titleist Performance Institute, in December 2009, an area of coaching Harrington has increasingly turned to, as perhaps the nadir of their relationship. "Ach, I did see it coming in a way," he says.
"He asked me to come out to the Tiger Woods tournament (Chevron World Challenge) and then we went down to San Diego to the Titleist academy. This guy was telling him things that I just didn't agree with. I told Pádraig that. I said to the man, 'I've been with him 15 years and I've never seen him doing that, what you're telling me he does'.
"They strapped him up like an astronaut against a big white wall. They were videoing him and he was hitting wedges. They were hitting the roof! He said to Pádraig after he put the film on, of the shadows against the white wall, 'that's perfect, and that's perfect and that's perfect'.
"I said, 'If those three swings were perfect, why's he hitting that bloody roof then? Why's he hitting the roof with a wedge? He shouldn't be doing that'. That upset Pádraig because I was telling this guy that he was telling Pádraig the wrong things. You see, in this game, they're trying to reinvent the wheel. It's impossible.
"You go back to Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, these guys were brilliant. There's nothing better than those three right now. This is the most difficult game man ever invented and the simpler you keep it the better."
The dust has settled now.
Life goes on in Largs. Often in weather conditions that no 80-year-old should be subjecting himself to, Torrance can be found, imparting the basics of grip, posture and swing plane and dropping nuggets of pure gold about a life lived through golf to anyone who turns up showing a little talent and a mind for application.
Sunday Indo Sport