Sport Kimmage

Tuesday 30 September 2014

That’s who I am. The only thing I know is that it never came easy to me. It’s always been a search’

Paul Kimmage

Published 13/10/2013 | 14:22

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‘Two Claret Jugs — perhaps the most lovely trophy in sport — sit on the island unit of the kitchen. The Wanamaker Trophy — gloriously shiny and huge — adorns the kitchen table. He has called the house ‘Elysian Fields’ and as you sit, marvelling at his name on the trophies, you are reminded of Maximus and his battle cry in ‘Gladiator’: “What we do today will echo in eternity.”’ Photos: David Conachy

The inside of Pádraig Harrington’s head has always been a fascinating place, but while Paul Kimmage struggles to apply logic to his many attempts to improve his game, Harrington is much more relaxed.

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THREE weeks ago, on a crisp Friday afternoon at his new home in Paris, Jonathan Sexton was signing a copy of Becoming a Lion, his just-published diary of a season, when he was reminded of something he had once been told by Ireland's most decorated golfer. “Pádraig Harrington says that you can tell the size of someone's ego by the size of the first letter of their autograph.” (His ‘J’ was modest.)

Four days later Ger Brennan, the Dublin centre back, was being interviewed by Miriam O'Callaghan about his nerves before the All-Ireland final when he was also reminded of Harrington: “I've heard Pádraig Harrington speak about nerves in sport and he says that if you're not nervous, you're not alive.”

A week after that, Harrington received a letter from the Royal Irish Academy of Music, thanking him for a talk he had given to their most gifted young musicians a year before. “Christopher Ellis, the cellist, went on to win the highest mark award in chamber music at Féis Ceol and most recently received the Flax Trust Award at the Clandeboye Music Festival. His mum, Paula, emailed us at the RIAM recently and said: ‘That talk from Pádraig Harrington has left a profound effect on his memory and in dealing with performing.'

When Harrington talks, winners listen and many of Ireland's finest coaches — Declan Kidney (2009 Grand Slam), Brian Cody (2009 All-Ireland), Conor Counihan (2010 All-Ireland), Jim Gavin (2013 All-Ireland) — have profited from knocking on his door.

But to whom does Harrington turn?

Five years have passed since he won the US PGA at Oakland Hills — his third major championship — and his game continues to decline. He hasn't won a tournament since, has slid from third to 98th in the world rankings and as things stand will not play at the Masters or the US Open next year. What Pádraig Harrington needs now, it would appear, is a talk from Pádraig Harrington. But would he listen? Would it work?

I quote him a passage from the Gospel according to Matthew and that scene from Mount Calvary where Jesus is being mocked on the cross by the chief priests, scribes and elders: “He saved others but he cannot save himself.”

He's impressed.

“You've got to the heart of this very quickly, haven't you?” he smiles.

The heart of it? No, that would take weeks studying the books that now shape his thoughts.

‘The Talent Code' — a book by Daniel Coyle that draws on cutting edge research to reveal that we can all achieve our full potential if we train our brain the right way.

‘Easier Said Than Done' — a book by Rick Jensen detailing “the undeniable, Tour-tested truths” we must apply to play to our full potential on the golf course.

‘The Brain That Changes Itself ' — a book by Norman Doidge that reveals the brain’s ability to repair itself through the power of positive thought.

‘Free Throw' — a book by Tom Amberry, a 72-year-old basketball-loving podiatrist, who entered the Guinness Book of Records for sinking 2,750 shots in a row from the free throw line.

‘Bounce' — a book by Matthew Syed that examines the science of success.

‘Golf is Not A Game of Perfect' — a book by Bob Rotella that analyses the doubts, fears and frustrations that haunt every golfer.

The heart of it? No, that would take weeks analysing the mental keys he has been taking to the golf course.

‘Excellence not perfection.'

‘Consistency equals consistent thinking.'

‘You become what you believe.' ‘Win ugly.'

‘Choose your mindset.'

‘Be nice to yourself.'

‘Create your own reality.'

‘Love strategy as your edge.'

The heart of it? No, that would take a morning on the range, listening to his contemporaries.

“Pádraig's problem is that he's always right. He would argue black was white.”

“He won three majors and decided to change! Where's the sense in that? He would have won a fortune if he had stopped tinkering.”

“I've never met anyone so stubborn. A story that sums him up? He spent his whole career railing against the long putter and on the day they announced it was going to be banned, he decides to take it out!”

“There's something new every week. You watch him practising sometimes and you'd swear he never played the game before. He'll be strapping himself to the bag next!”

The heart of it? No, that would take a seat at the meeting he shared recently with JP McManus and Dermot Desmond before the Dunhill Links.

Desmond: “You keep telling me you're playing great but it's not happening on the golf course.”

Harrington: “I know.”

Desmond: “I think you should go back to Bob (Torrance).”

Harrington: “No.”

Desmond: “Go back to Bob.”

Harrington: “No.”

Desmond: “Why not?”

Harrington: “Because my golf

swing isn't the issue. I'm swinging the golf club better now than I have ever done but I'm just not scoring well. I used to walk off the golf course thinking I had played like 70, and sign for 68. Now I walk-off thinking I have played like 70, and sign for 72.”

McManus: “And what's the answer? How is that happening?”

Harrington: “I don't know, I'm . . . I guess befuddled is the word. I've always been someone who looked at a problem and said ‘Okay, let's do X, Y and Z and we'll get an outcome.' But at the moment I can't figure what X,Y and Z are.”

McManus: “Well Pádraig, sometimes when you don't know the answer to a question, you have to move onto a question you do know the answer to.”>

The heart of it? No, that would take you back to Stackstown Golf Club, the place that formed his “pokey old swing” and ability to chip like God.

“Conditions dictated who I am. If I was brought-up on a nice range, in nice weather, I would probably have hit the ball with a lot more ease, but I was brought- up on a tricky golf course in horri- ble conditions. At Stackstown, if you put the ball in the air for eight seconds you were going to lose it because it would blow out of bounds. So you were better off making a pokey old swing and getting it down quickly. The greens were really difficult — you had to be a superb putter with great imagination and I was good at that. I could chip and I could putt. ThisiswhoIam,andithas always been who I am. Am I going to change? No.”

The heart of it? No, that would take you straight to the bottom line.

What if the thing that had made him great was also destroying him?

 

*****

THE month is April, 1996. We are sitting in the lounge at Stackstown, looking out on the fairways that shaped him, two months after his debut as a professional. It's gone well — he's finished 23rd at the Moroccan Open, made the cut in five (out of five) events and pocketed almost 12 grand — but he's taking nothing for granted.

He's not dreaming of playing at The Masters (it was the morning of the opening round) and is reluctant to discuss his targets or aspirations which makes him odd, I guess, but interesting because he is ‘deep'. A ‘thinker.' When I sug- gest that Greg Norman deserves finally to win a Masters, he quotes the classic line from Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven: “Deserve has got nothing to do with it.” And he seems more energised by failure than success.

He tells me a story about 1990, his breakthrough year as an amateur, and a career-changing moment at the Irish Youths Championship in Dundalk when he blew a two-shot lead in the last four holes to lose to David Errity. The defeat was crushing but revelatory — he had lost because he had been confident he would win.

“Most golfers thrive on confidence,” he explained. “I can only play with fear. When I'm confident, I'll stand there thinking ‘Yeah, this is good,' and then, at the last minute my focus will widen — ‘Don't hit it over there' — and I'll put myself in trouble. When I'm not confident, I'll see the water and the out of bounds and the intensity the fear brings narrows my focus.”

A week after our interview he started a run: eighth at the Cannes Open, seventh in Valencia and tenth at the Italian Open in Bergamo. Then, in just his tenth professional start, he won the Spanish Open in Madrid. The sport had found a new and unlikely champion — a tea-totalling, non-smoking Dubliner whose long game wasn't pretty but who could chip and putt like God. Could it last? The jury was out.

“I see it today,” he says. “Some kid turns up and shoots 68 but hits it badly and you think ‘That's unlikely to happen again.' And if it does happen for the week, it's unlikely to happen the following week, and if he gets on a run, it will last no more than 18 months. I did that for 14 years.

“I'm sure every person I played with, walked-off the golf course thinking ‘He won't do it tomorrow.' And I did do it tomorrow. Or ‘He won't do that all week.' And I did do it all week. But mentally it was tough. It's harder, when you're under pressure (with your swing) to play solid, consistent, golf but being on edge was obviously a good thing for me. I was 12 years as a pro before I came out of my winter break not believing that it was all going to be gone.”

Twelve years? That will be Sunday, July 22 and the 2007 Open at Carnoustie when he bounced back from an ugly drive on the 72nd hole to claim his first Claret Jug. A year later, he defended it at Royal Birkdale and entered the pantheon of the gods with a third Major title at Oakland Hills. His coach, Bob Torrance, was glowing.

“Pádraig is the best pupil I've worked with,” he said, “not because of what he has done but because of how close he is to how good he can be.”

But his pupil, typically, did not agree: “Mentally and physically, I'm not anywhere near where I could be.”

Two mistakes kept him awake at night; both were errant drives — the 72nd at Carnoustie when he had hit way right and found the Barry Burn, and the 72nd at Oakland Hills when he had missed right again and found the fairway bunker.

“At the end of 2008,” he says, “I had peaked at world number three but I felt I was a long way behind Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods and needed to up my game to catch them.”

Upping his game meant long hours on the range with Torrance and frequent trips to a new facility in California — the Titleist Performance Institute — where he spent weeks analysing the biomechanics of his swing.

“At TPI, they look at your body and swing on a computer and give you all the parameters. I was like a kid in a candy shop. I brought Bob out and said ‘These guys are not the enemy' but I got caught between two stools. There's no doubt that if I had just listened to Bob, I would have played better golf. I didn't listen to Bob. I needed to find out ‘Why am I hitting these double-wide shots?' And we spent 18 months arguing.”

In August 2011, after a 12-year partnership, Harrington announced they had parted ways. A month later, he started working with Peter Cowan and believes, after a two-year collaboration, that he has finally solved the flaws in his swing. “It's funny,” he says, “but I always wanted to be that kid on the range who hit the golf ball well and now I'm there. Teeto-green, I hit the ball so much better than I ever did.”

There is just one problem . . .

 

*****

IT'S a Monday morning at his home in Dublin. He has spent the morning chipping and putting and sits down for the interview with a cup of tea and a scone. Two Claret Jugs — perhaps the most lovely trophy in sport — sit on the island unit of the kitchen. The Wanamaker Trophy — gloriously shiny and huge — adorns the kitchen table. He has called the house ‘Elysian Fields’ and as you sit, marvelling at his name on the trophies, you are reminded of Maximus and his battle cry in ‘Gladiator’: “What we do today will echo in eternity.”

Harrington has taken care of eternity; it's today we've come to talk about.

Paul Kimmage: What's that like? You come down here every morning for breakfast with two of the most coveted trophies in golf.

Pádraig Harrington: I don't see them in the morning, if you know what I mean. I see them when somebody brings them up and I deliberately bring them up myself when I need to. When I'm doing corporate outings now, I generally start off with — and this is a joke, I'm just having fun — but I generally start off with: ‘When I won my first major...'But yeah,I use it to lighten the load on me, no doubt about it, and that's something I said I wouldn't do. I said I'd wait until I retired before I would enjoy the wins but I'm dipping into them now and taking stock of the fact that I won those events.

PK: You were back in Carnoustie last week at the Dunhill links?

PH: Yeah.

PK: How did it feel going back? PH: Well, you're always gutted when you finish badly. Professional golfers who par the last to shoot 70 are always happier than the guys who three-putts the last to shoot 69. It's not logical, but they are happier shooting 70 than the guy shooting 69. I bogeyed the last (to shoot 76) and I know I have to recover quickly and reset myself. There are people waiting for autographs and you can't afford to be sulking, so I said to my caddie as I was walking off: ‘I'm glad I won an Open Championship here.’

PK: What did that mean?

PH: Just that. I had won an Open Championship there. It changes your outlook. Would I have rather shot 69 and not won an Open Championship? No.

PK: But surely that's the given in all of this?

PH: No, it's not the given.

PK: What I mean is, if someone had sat you down ten years ago and offered you a choice: “You're going to win three Majors but never going to hit a decent golf shot after that,” you would have ripped their hand off.

PH: Of course you would, but if you were to take that attitude . . . I do believe I can win another one, and that's why I'm going on. If I didn't believe that I would stop. Why would I bother? Because nothing else is going to compare. So yeah, I've won three Majors but golf is more about what you did last week, not what you did in the past. When I finish, it will be much more about what I did in the past and those three Majors will bring me immense joy. And in many ways I was cheating last week because I was dipping into that, but I needed to at the time.

PK: It's five years since you won at Oakland Hills. David Walsh suggested recently that instead of all those hours you've spent since on the practice ground, you would have been better off reading Wordsworth: <em>‘Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; Our meddling intellect Misshapes the beauteous form of things: we murder to dissect.’</em>

PH: I one hundred per cent believe in that but that doesn't mean we're not going to do it. That's who I am. That's who I've always been.

PK: That's how you got here? PH: I can't change who I am.

I've got to work with who I am. I can change how I work but I can't change who I am.

PK: I've noticed your latest routine on the range: You're using what looks like a rubber ball, strapped to your left foot?

PH: Yeah.

PK: How does that work?

PH: It makes my left foot — and you'll see I've changed my shoes this year — but it makes my left foot work much harder to stabilise, which gets my hip, further up the chain, to decelerate and lock-up when I'm hitting the golf ball. It's a technical thing . . . but I love drills, because I can put that on my foot and I don't have to think about it.

PK: And what's the technical goal?

PH: To make my left hip stabilise earlier in my downswing; if you want to accelerate, you need to get something to stop, and my hip has never stopped and that's led to . . . It's another way of improving my golf swing.

PK: You've changed your shoes?

PH: Yeah, I wear a flat heel.

PK: Why?

PH: It makes my feet work harder. Before I wore shoes that supported me, these don't. These make you do the work.

PK: Why is that better?

PH: Because I am trying to get my feet to work properly in order to stabilise my hip.

PK: And there's another routine where you shove your arse-out?

PH: That's for the tilt of my hips.

PK: Let me quote you one of your contemporaries: “Sometimes he looks like a guy who has never played the game before.”

PH: It's only a drill. And I don't care what they say. I don't think I was ever too worried about . . .

PK: What other people were saying?

PH: Yeah.

PK: What about this: “He'll be strapped to the bag next.”

PH: (Laughs) Well, if I thought it would help me I would.

PK: You would concede that you're stubborn?

PH: Yes, it's got me where I am.

PK: What about this from Dermot Desmond: “He's smart enough to get there but stubborn enough to make the journey long.”

PH: (Laughs) That is a good quote . . . Could I argue with that? Yeah, I probably could argue with it.

PK: Or this: “He would argue that black was white.”

PH: Yeah, he could be right. There's no doubt the stubbornness got me where I am but in terms of not performing . . . there are so many different aspects to it.

PK: Okay, let's address one aspect, and again it relates to stubbornness: “He has spent his whole career railing against the long putter, and on the day they announce it is going to be banned, he decides to use it.”

PH: What's the question?

PK: Well, what was the logic of it?

PH: That's somebody who doesn't understand me. The first thing people have to understand about me is that I'm stickler for the rules. Whatever is within the rules is okay. Clearly, I had made a decision to use the long putter before they announced it was going to be banned.

PK: So it was a coincidence?

PH: A pure coincidence. I will use whatever will make me play better today and deal with the consequences, once it's within the rules. When they change the rules I will change. I had the yips, people don't know that; people have no idea but I had the yips last year.

PK: Putting?

PH: Yeah, nobody knows it because I didn't tell anybody.

PK: When?

PH: Through most of last year.

PK: How did it manifest itself? I hit putts that you wouldn't believe last year. I didn't tell anybody because it would only have made an issue of it. I can say it now, because I don't have it now.

PK: You once told me a story about the difference between you an Angel Cabrera. <em>This is what you said: “You could wake Cabrera up in the middle of the night, in his pyjamas, with sleep in his eyes, and he would still hit his driver 340 yards straight down the middle of the fairway without thinking about it. But give him a threefoot putt or whatever and it's the opposite. He finds putting tremendously difficult and complicated. I'm the opposite. I find putting an un-technical thing. It's completely mental for me.”</em>

PH: Yeah.

PK: You also told me a story about a game you had played in Portmarnock with your friend, Noel Fox, and an observation he had made after you had holed a four-footer: <em>“I don't know why I asked you to putt that. It just looked so easy for you.”</em>

PH: Yeah, but it wasn't easy — that was his perception.

PK: Okay, but it used to be a cornerstone of your game. How did you go from there to the yips?

PH: I lost my confidence reading the greens, and when you lose confidence you're not getting your preparation done — you're standing over the putt and trying to figure what you are trying to do. And if you are still trying to figure it when you're making the putting stroke, you are going to interfere with it. I hit some putts and the impact was like I had a hot poker in my hand: ‘Oh my God!' I used the long putter to get rid of it, but it was a pretty horrible feeling. The crucial point is that I make an indecisive stroke when I don't do my preparation.

PK: These problems reading the greens . . . You've had your eyesight done (laser treatment) four times?

PH: Yeah. I never struggled with my eyes but always had a right-to-left bias as a kid, so if I saw a straight putt I'd probably hit it right-half. The first two times I had my eyes done, didn't correct that astigmatism, and when I got them done in 2007, the astigmatism flipped and I went from having a right-toleft bias to a left-to-right bias. So basically now, if I see a straight putt, I think it's from left-to-right, but I'm working with some eye people trying to sort that out.

PK: So you can't see the line?

PH: I don't trust the line.

PK: Is that not the same thing?

PH: Well, I don't see it so I don't trust it, but I'm a professional golfer, I can figure it out. I mean, I was having desperate problems at the 2010 Ryder Cup reading the greens but when I read them for Ross Fischer, he holed everything because he believed me. I just didn't believe myself.

PK: But how do you solve that?

PH: Well, a couple of ways, one is not to read the greens and putt from feel. Another would be to let Ronan (his caddie, Ronan Flood) read the greens and just trust that he'll get it right nine times out of ten, which is probably better than my seven times out of ten.

‘The first thing people have to understand about me is that I'm stickler for the rules’

PK: So what's the deal with your glasses?

PH: The glasses were a way of changing it.

PK: When did you start wearing them?

PH: This year. The problem I had with the glasses — and I couldn't get away from it — but I had a feeling I was standing on a downslope. They corrected the left-to-right bias but I kept thinking when I was flat that I was standing on a downslope and that meant I hit my wedges fat. I persevered for two months, thinking it would go away but ultimately I couldn't put up with it I was making bogeys where I should have been making birdies and that cost me a good two months of the season.

PK: Because you played with the glasses at the start of the season?

PH: Yeah, I played with them for two months.

PK: And then you took them off?

PH: I wear them casually now.

PK: Even though you have had the laser treatment?

PH: Yeah, I've 20/20 vision with the laser.

PK: So why do you need the glasses?

PH: Because one eye works stronger than the other with the astigmatism.

PK: It sounds unbelievably confusing.

PH: Yeah, but it is what it is. I grew-up with a right to left bias. Now I have a left to right bias. And that alone could be the issue. Or the box grooves could be the issue. Who knows? Maybe me being burnt out is the issue . . . there's just too many variables to pin-point . . . like if there was one variable . . . well, who knows, I'd have to gouge one of my eyes out.

PK: Have you discounted that?

PH: (Laughs) Well, if you told me it would work.

PK: Two years ago, we had a long conversation about where you had come from and where you were going and you were absolutely convinced . . .

PH: I'll answer your question, I am not convinced now.

PK: That does answer my question.

PH: Yeah, at that time I was fully convinced I had a road map for success, that had led to success, and believed I needed to keep doing that. And do it better. And, I don't know, maybe trying to do it better led to a level of perfection that was hard to achieve. I got more intense about it, and less tolerant and ultimately . . .

PK: Because again, all the learning and the theory and the books . . . We look at you from the outside and it all seems terribly confusing. ‘How can he even pick up the golf club with these millions of things in his head? It makes no sense to us. But it seems to make sense to you?

PH: That's how I got here. That's who I am. The only thing I know is that it never came easy to me, it's always been a search. I know plenty of guys and their golf swings never changed and it was pretty straight forward but maybe they failed elsewhere. I worked. I had to change things. I continue to do that. I like doing that. I'm fascinated by that. It keeps me alive. And yes, I'm going to be judged but I stay away from those judgements as much as I can.

PK: There's no going back?

PH: There's no going back.

PK: You can't be the old Pádraig again?

PH: No, I am a different person. I am a more confident person. I have to learn to work with the new me, which is an interesting challenge.

PK: It's funny, but I get no sense of you being tortured at all?

Tortured? No. Have I been exasperated by the game? Yeah, some of the cuts I've missed have been really disappointing, but it doesn't last. The minute I start practising, I'm thinking of going forward.

PK: And where are you now? As things stand, you are not going to play at the Masters next year?

PH: Yeah, and unlikely to play — that's the reality. I'm in an ugly situation where I really do have to perform and I don't have a huge amount of time.

PK:And again, the perception is that you must be at home with your head between your hands but you're sitting here, licking a big '99'! (Caroline, his wife, bought him an ice cream machine for his birthday last year. It's his favourite present of all time.)

PH: What's the point in being miserable? It's only going to do me harm. I've always said that a balanced reaction is the most important thing for any golfer, take it too personally and it's always going to get you down.

(He finishes the cone.)

PK: That looked delicious.

PH: It was. Are you sure you won't have one?

PK: No thanks.

PH: Fair enough . . . I'm having another one.

 

PADRAIG HARRINGTON CAREER MILESTONES

 

1995 — member of Walker Cup winning team Turned professional

1996 — First professional victory in Spanish Open 2005 — First PGA Tour victory in Honda Classic 2006 — European Order of Merit winner

2007 — British Open winner

2008 — British Open winner

US PGA winner

2009 — First year without a win since 1999

Ryder Cup team member in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010

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