'I'd still be telling the public to have a bet on me to win the Masters at some stage, that's how I think'
Pádraig Harrington will be in Augusta this week as a commentator – but competitive fire still burns for victory on the course
Pádraig Harrington sits in the kitchen of his Rathmichael home, two Claret Jugs on the island counter next to a couple of laptops.
We have been talking about stereotype and how, sometimes, it can vault into open parody through people's assumptions. Harrington is an obsessive and doesn't deny it. How could he? The anecdotal evidence is everywhere, even here, even now. Next to the laptops, sits a book, 'The Undoing Project' by Michael Lewis.
"Terribly boring book, shocking," he grins, in a mock whisper.
Yet, he will read it cover to cover. His mind is a sponge for this stuff. 'The Talent Code'. 'The Brain that Changes Itself'. 'Bounce'. He's read them all and taken from them any tiny shards of wisdom he feels might be reconcilable with his own concept of self-help. His interests in the physiology and psychology of competition have all but labelled him with a branding-iron.
People believe he tinkers too much, that he'd have fewer ragged days on the golf course if his mind was maybe less cluttered. They've seen him on the range with that rubber ball under his foot. They remember the glasses; the broomhandle putter; the flat-heeled shoes. They've heard him talk about moving his tongue to the left side of his mouth in service to some opaque notion about balance.
They see this man who got to number three in the world nine years ago and, rather than embrace the moment, threw himself into an exploration of the biomechanics of his swing.
What they don't see is how he parks all that in tournament play. How, if he was playing in Augusta this week, he'd have shut down any technical work on his swing the best part of a month ago. How, even though Bob Rotella and Pete Cowen would most probably be watching his every move, they'd actually be precluded from passing ANY comments on his play.
What people don't understand is that, in competition, Harrington uses the range only to warm-up. That he claims to never, ever take "a swing thought" with him into competition.
Yet the golf world keeps imagining him as too mechanical, too technical. Someone forever susceptible to over-thinking their game. "I know," he says flatly. "And there's no doubt about it, I've been my own worst enemy in that."
"No, in telling people!"
* * *
He is maybe two months away from a return to tournament golf, but flies to Augusta today to work at The Masters for Sky.
His neck surgery has been deemed a success and the hope now is that Harrington might contest the PGA Championship at Wentworth in late May. That would give him a two-month run into The Open at Royal Birkdale, where he sees himself - in a sense - defending the title he won there in '08. Four months short of his 46th birthday, the break in schedule isn't ideal, but circumstance left him with little choice.
Having pinched a nerve on his first night at the Rio Olympics (sleeping in the athletes' village, he had to essentially prop up a flimsy pillow with rolled-up clothes) a nerve became trapped in his back, leading to pins and needles and, eventually, numbness.
"The stability of everything was falling apart and I was struggling with both shoulders," he recalls now. "Whether I rested, got physio or got injections, whatever I did it was gradually going, going, going.
"It was only getting worse and threatening to take me out of the whole summer."
So impatience becomes his most dogged opponent for now. Last October, Harrington fired a bogey-free final round of 65 to win the Portugal Masters title in Vilamoura. In 2015, he ended a seven-year title famine with victory in the Honda Classic. He believes absolutely that, when fit again, his game can re-reach the heights that once won him three Majors inside 13 months.
"I'm sitting here," he says flatly. "I've got half a year and I bet you I will shoot course records during the rest of the season. I think I'm going to win more Majors. I actually couldn't be more excited about my game!"
So no advance planning for the Seniors' Tour yet then?
The question seems to faintly startle him. "No, in my head, I'm going to be the guy in his fifties winning on the (European) Tour. I'm going to be that guy!"
And, maybe on some subliminal level, Birkdale shadows every second thought now. Recently, when chipping balls onto the greens built into the landscape around his house, he admits he's found himself visualising different parts of the Southport course. It was there, of course, that his successful defence of The Open title in '08 catapulted Harrington into superstardom.
He was the first European in over a century to win successive Claret Jugs and when, one month later, he added the USPGA crown, it seemed anything was possible. Yet, by the time he won again (seven years later), he was ranked 297th in the world. The dip seems entirely logical to him in hindsight now. In his head, most players are capable of a stretch in which they feel psychologically close to bomb-proof on a golf course. When mistakes simply won't spook them and success breeds almost irrational patience.
During the summer of '08, that was how he felt with his game. He hates the expression, but reluctantly deploys it... "when my shit was good enough..." A line synopsizing the kind of attitude he recognised in Rory McIlroy in 2011 or Jordan Spieth in 2015, at least until Jason Day began booming drives 40 yards past him at Whistling Straits.
But to get to that moment, Pádraig Harrington spent a decade wondering if it was a gift reserved only for the chosen few.
He was, after all, already ten years a professional when he blew the '06 US Open at Winged Foot. Playing the best golf of his life, he just needed to finish with three pars for the title. But a bogey on 16 blew the fuses in his head. "It came from nowhere and was a shock to me," he remembers. "So I forced the last two holes, pure inexperience. It was the most catastrophic misreading of a situation for me." Two more bogeys followed.
Walking off 18, he could see Rotella approach, "waiting to talk me down off the ledge". But before Rotella could speak, Harrington met him with a smile.
"Now I know I can win a Major!" he said.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it was within my hands..."
Rotella says he worries most about Harrington when he's got time on his hands. When, out of competition, his mind can maybe slip out of "trusting mode". He donated a whole chapter of his book 'Your 15th club" to Harrington's first Open victory at Carnoustie one year after that Winged Foot meltdown. Yet, of course, that might easily have been a car-crash too with Pádraig's drive on the 72nd hole ending up in the Barrie Burn.
Harrington says that that shot was down to him simply being too composed on the tee-box and experiencing a sudden twinge of panic in the middle of his backswing. "I just panicked because I wasn't expecting it."
It was a moment that taught him the importance of acknowledging fear. Maybe even embracing it.
One year later at Birkdake, he'd shot a 74 in poor conditions on the Thursday morning. Staying in a house with friends near the course, he was trying to occupy his time throughout the rain-lashed afternoon when he walked into the living-room. The golf was on the TV and he saw Adam Scott reach the par five fifteenth with a driver and three wood.
That morning, Harrington had needed three woods to get to that green. "I wanted to kick the TV I was so gutted," he laughs now.
Two rounds into the subsequent USPGA, he was sufficiently off the pace to tell journalists "I'll give it another go next year". Yet fitness coach, Liam Hennessy, deduced that Harrington had been dehydrated through those opening rounds. A storm on the Saturday, meant he only had to play nine holes that day, giving him extra time to recover. Then heavy rain softened the course to his liking and, well, the planets were aligned.
Peculiar things just happen, he believes, to people who start feeling lucky.
"You'd be surprised the different ways you can win tournaments" he says now. "People have this idea that players win in a very ordered fashion. That's so far from the truth. It's always presented as black and white. If a guy wins, it's like he was in complete control. If he loses, everything will be narrowed down to a particular incident where he let it slip.
"I've won tournaments where I've hit it out of bounds, or where I've hit it in the water. When I'm in contention, I'm very nervous, I'm very tight, I'm full of fear, I know it could get ugly. But I want to be nervous every Sunday afternoon for the rest of my life. Because I fully understand that nerves don't put you off.
"It's worrying about nerves that's the problem."
He recalls facing a treacherous downhill, three-foot putt in Tampa two years ago just to make the cut. Fifty yards from the green, Harrington burst out laughing. Turning to caddie, Ronan Flood, he said: "I can't tell you how nervous I'm going to be hitting this putt..."
The idea was that by almost over- focusing on those nerves, they'd have all but dissipated by the time he stood over that putt. And he duly sank it.
"A little bit of anxiousness can be an awful thing," he stresses. "Whereas a lot of it, if you're ready for it, is okay!"
* * *
At Augusta this week, he'll be a mite sheepish around the locker-room (as a former Major winner he gets access), reckoning he won't be inclined to darken its door too often.
Something in Harrington's head makes him uncomfortable with the idea of players seeing him in non-playing mode. He is honest enough to admit that he wonders a lot what others think of him and is surprisingly candid about a personal susceptibility to self-doubt. Around 2013, when he had the putting 'yips', that self-doubt all but made him question his place on the Tour.
He explains "I'm trying so hard and coming in with say a 73. And you're in the first couple of groups out, drawn basically with rookies most of the time. Or guys like me who are struggling. You're on invites, so you're getting literally the first couple or last couple of tee times.
"So I'd struggle around there, working hard to shoot my 73 and these young kids might be shooting 68 and 67 and I'm nearly thinking 'God I'm getting in the way...' sort of stuff. Then you come off the golf course, you sit down at lunch time, things are a little more relaxed, and they might start asking you about the Majors.
"And all of a sudden you start realising these guys have respect for me. But you don't know until then. Because I'm a player. I'm all about now."
Because of his status - or maybe his seniority - Harrington suspects a lot of young players "aren't themselves" around him. Some with volatile reputations, maybe a name for tantrums and tossed clubs, seem almost tranquilised in his company. He senses them "on tenterhooks".
And that makes him think back to his own early years on the Tour, especially days when paired with his childhood hero, Seve Ballesteros.
In his heyday, the Spaniard's daring meant that no shot seemed impossible. After an errant drive, he'd all but sprint down the fairway to locate whatever challenge awaited him in the trees. "He'd go in there with pure joy, trying to figure out how he was going to hit the greatest golf shot of all time," remembers Harrington.
"Phil Mickelson is like that at the moment. You put him in trouble and everything lights up. And I get that. There's nothing better than when you're in the trees, you have a crowd around you and you hit this shot that has them all going 'How did he do that?' Knowing you have that shot in your bag is fantastic.
"Seve was a complete idol of mine growing up. But when I played with him in '96 and '97, he was tough work. Now, as it turned out, Seve probably had a brain tumour at that stage. But when he'd hit it in the trees, it would be ten practice swings on the tee-box trying to figure out what he'd done wrong.
"Whereas in his good days, he never took a practice swing."
Harrington's innate optimism on the golf course is communicated with a remarkably resilient smile. He believes in the idea of positive feelings reaping positive outcomes, arguing "I honestly believe if you hit it in the trees off the first tee and you walk off with a smile, you'll get a better lie than if you walk off grumpy."
But a real smile?
"It becomes a real smile!"
Still, we wonder aloud will a small part of him at Augusta this week not wonder if he'll ever get a Masters slot again? The question draws that easy Harrington laugh.
"I think Shane Lowry summed me up, I really do," he grins. "In some event he was playing in last year, Shane was asked about me.
"And he said 'Pádraig thinks he's going to win this week and he's not even playing!' And it does sum me up (laughing).
"You know I'd still be telling the public to have a bet on me to win the Masters at some stage, that's how I think."
That victory in Portugal has served, undeniably, to embolden such thoughts.
Harrington's scores in Vilamoura brought him a combined total of 23 under. When, on the Sunday, he holed a bunker shot on 11, he got a profound sense that he was going to win. It ended with him needing to hole a "horrible" downhill putt on 18.
"All I do now is try to get myself into that position where I can win a tournament, because I definitely have a knack in that situation," he says emphatically. "I believe I'm lucky for a start. Why not believe that? You've got to be in that frame of mind.
"I also believe that I'm the sort of guy, coming down the stretch, that guys might over-estimate. They'll be worried about me holing a putt or chipping in or doing something crazy because that's what they've seen me do over the years. And that's a good place to be because that could cause them to make mistakes.
"Like, it's funny, when everyone was talking about me having 29 second places in my career, it was like I had an opportunity every week. Yet they kept telling me I had to be doing something wrong. The weird thing now is I get so few opportunities (to win) now, I'm not really putting myself in contention.
"But whenever I do - and this will tell you how few opportunities I have - I actually win!"
He believes this week's tournament could be a shoot-out between McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, albeit the American's recent form suggests he could be unstoppable. "I'm fascinated to see Dustin," says Harrington. "There's probably six players (at the top of the world game), but he's actually kind of broken that.
"All of these guys, whether it's Rory, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth, Ricky Fowler or Jason Day, they all think they have to play their best to win because they're worried about each other. But Dustin doesn't think!"
* * *
Before flying to the US, Harrington paid another visit last week to Adare Manor where JP McManus is said to be investing upwards of €30million in upgrading the golf course to, potentially, Ryder Cup status by 2026.
Harrington has been helping on a consultancy basis and predicts "There'll be nothing like it in Ireland and, probably, nothing like it in Europe. You will never have seen the likes of it."
He makes no secret of his own ambition to be a future Ryder Cup captain, having worked as a vice-captain for both Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke. The two experiences proved profoundly different, yet both were educational.
"I would really love to do it, but I don't think it's the easiest job," he says now. "I've two sets of notes in diaries from those tournaments, because I'm a great believer that you learn from the guys who have done it."
In McGinley's case, Europe recorded a resounding five-points victory over the US at Gleneagles. Last year, Clarke's team suffered a heavy six-points loss at Hazeltine. And Harrington found some of the fall-out to that 2016 defeat a little perplexing and, on occasion, annoying.
"I found it very hard afterwards that people were hoping that as a vice-captain that they could knock him (Clarke) and I'd agree with them. They'd come up to you wanting to criticise Darren, as if I wasn't part of it.
"I've taken the head off a few people over that. We were all involved. We made mistakes. But they were mistakes that had to be learned. We can all sit, passing judgement in hindsight now and it's right that people do that with the Ryder Cup, because it's fascinating.
"But it's so much easier to give that opinion when you know the result!"
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