US Masters countdown: Augusta 'rookie' Padraig Harrington mastering his inner chimp
Between them, the visions of Magnolia Drive and a belligerent chimp have made Padraig Harrington feel like an Augusta debutant again.
The veteran is heading back to the Masters next week after a two-year absence determined to live for the moments which many observers presumed were in his past.
Harrington, 43, earned his golden ticket at the Honda Classic last month with a dramatic play-off win which ensured he would not have to go through the same tortures of last April, as for the first time in 15 years he found himself in Dublin rather than among the azaleas. The realisation that he would be returning breathed fresh life not only to his career but also to his family's appreciation of the perks.
"It's like going back there for the first time," Harrington said. "It's funny, all my family are coming as well. In past years it's been 'ah, we'll wait and go another year'. But obviously now that I've missed one they're fearing this will be the last time they are going. It's good, though. I feel like a rookie. It was a big miss last year. I watched it from the couch at home and it was tough. Because, you know, even when I was out of form I always thought I had a chance at any major. I was gutted to miss out on not so much the experience - as amazing as it is at Augusta - but on the chance to win a green jacket."
The point is, at the same time as Harrington has never stopped tinkering he has never stopped believing either. In the seven years since his last, or as he calls it "my most recent", major, Harrington slipped as low as 371st in the world. What was to blame was the constant changing of a swing so ropey it happened to bring three major titles in 13 months - that is the theory, anyway. Harrington sees it differently.
"Yeah, I'm something of am obsessive when it comes to practising - I had seven weeks off over Christmas and vowed to hit 10,000 balls," he said. "But that's just me. It's where your head is at that wins golf tournaments, not how you are swinging it. I always knew that. Maybe 20 years ago I thought there was a secret to perfection. But there isn't.
"The problem was it got to a stage where I didn't hit a shot in four or five years that I didn't find something wrong with. Every single shot. Even if I'd hit it stone dead. I analysed everything to the Nth degree, was totally immersed with how I was doing it rather than the end product."
Harrington was in a rut from which even his long-time mentor Dr Bob Rotella could not haul him. His coach Pete Cowen suggested he talked to Dr Steve Peters, the renowned sports psychiatrist who has enjoyed such success with the British cycling team, Ronnie O'Sullivan and Liverpool. Harrington was confused as he had read Peters' bestseller The Chimp Paradox.
"I started working with Steve last summer and he really helped me out,"
Harrington said. "I don't generally tell people about the chimp. It's a hard one to explain. I rather tell people about the subconscious and the conscious. My big mistake was that when I read the book I didn't think it applied to me, because I assumed the chimp was very aggressive, loud and always jumping out there and the type of guy who throws clubs and loses his temper. Which isn't me.
"My chimp is a lot quieter, a lot more behind the scenes, but he needs serious quietening down and a lot of reassuring like everyone else's. My chimp was definitely doing a lot of damage and still can."
A year ago, Harrington was playing in the first round of the Houston Open knowing that only a win would be good enough to transport him to Georgia. Today he will teeing it up with a far more relaxed and positive demeanour.
"I've been bubbling since that win and see everything as a nice return to form," he said. "My MO over the years has always been to have peaks and troughs. My wins tend to come together so hopefully I'll win a few more going forwards now. I'll just be very glad to be there. It should be interesting."
Indeed it should and as the last player to have the chance to win three straight majors, Rory McIlroy's bid will hold more resonance to Harrington.
"I'd have to say expectations are the main hurdle. It's difficult. But Rory's in a good position where he likes that expectation on him; he's had it, to varying degrees, since he was a kid. Augusta is a tough course, though and you don't want to have any fear or inhibitions there.
"You have to play golf, you can't protect anything. But Rory knows what to do and will be trying to get out of his own way as much as possible." (©Daily Telegraph, London)
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