Blunt blade leaves even the best without cutting edge
For all his tweaking, Pádraig Harrington's big concern is putting, says Dermot Gilleece
In the grand setting of Dublin Castle almost five years ago, Wilson Golf made quite a fuss about a new, three-year contact they had agreed with Pádraig Harrington to play their clubs. Worth a reported $10 million, it was followed two months later by a $12 million deal with the American finance company, FTI.
These were the Dubliner's more lucrative rewards for capturing the Open Championship and PGA Championship that summer, so completing the stunning haul of three Major championships in only 14 months. And there were other valuable bonuses, most of which have now run their course.
For instance, he won't be exempt for the lucrative WGC-HSBC Championship in Shanghai next month. And unless there's a dramatic improvement in his current world ranking of 94th before the end of the year, he will have to find another route into the US Masters next April. And into the US Open at Pinehurst in June 2014.
Though Harrington remains a player of truly remarkable achievement, he has fallen back among the rank and file of a highly competitive game in terms of playing rights. Except, of course, for a precious exemption into the Open Championship until he's 60, and a lifetime exemption into the PGA Championship.
His many admirers here and overseas are painfully familiar with a dramatic decline which caused him to turn to the belly-putter last May. Perhaps his most telling observation through all of this was the admission: "I can't put everything together in a given week . . ." Nothing illustrated this more graphically than rounds of 66, 66, 72 and 80 in the Travelers Championship in June.
"What's wrong with Pádraig?" his fans plead, in the knowledge that there is no simple answer. As I have suggested in the past, it may be that he has climbed his mountain and is now struggling to find a dignified route down the other side. And amid the disappointments, there has been quite amazing dignity.
The really hard bit must be for him to accept repeated setbacks while aware that, tee to green, he is technically a better golfer now than he was when those bountiful contracts were signed. His contemporaries will readily confirm this. Unfortunately for him, he has lost the ability to score the Harrington way.
Yet with unquenchable enthusiasm, he continues to press forward, unbowed. Which reminds me of a chat I had with his father, Paddy, six weeks before his death in the summer of 2005. It had to do with a winter's day when his youngest son asked if he would join him at Stackstown, even though the ground was covered in a thick blanket of snow. "When we went up there, he cleared away snow from one of the tees and began hitting balls into a sea
of white," said Paddy. "The thought of missing a day's practice would have killed him."
Last month at Oak Hill, I happened to be on the practice ground on the Saturday. Out of nowhere, Harrington appeared, ready for work despite the fact that he had missed the cut the previous day.
It would never have dawned on him that colleagues might be looking on with bemusement. The circumstances were of no consequence in his undiminished desire to hit golf balls. So, what really went wrong after those glory days of 2007 and 2008? Quite a lot, as it happens.
At the time, Harrington said: "You've got to understand that there's a huge difference between me winning a Major and Tiger (Woods) winning a Major. From his earliest days, it's what he was destined to do, though I suspect the first couple of Major victories would still have hit him pretty hard. I was totally unprepared for the breakthrough at Carnoustie (2007 Open Championship) and I never expected the second and third Majors to come so soon afterwards."
At this point it may be no harm to remind ourselves of some celebrated casualties among golf's Major champions. In the wake of capturing back-to-back US Open titles in 1988 and 1989, Curtis Strange changed coaches from Jimmy Ballard to David Leadbetter – and never won again on tour. Sandy Lyle had a similar experience after adding the 1988 US Masters to his Open triumph of 1985.
Seve Ballesteros also went in pursuit of technical advancement and lost his way. In this context, it has been said that nobody could separate the scientific from the pragmatic better than Harrington.
Indeed by way of regularly reminding himself of this strength, he would start each golf clinic by informing his audience that what made him a good golfer was not superior ball-striking, but an ability to focus on the target.
From hours on the practice ground, working on various drills, he had the ability to store all of that away when he headed for the first tee, and focus on the simple process of manoeuvring the ball from A to B, taking each shot as it came. In this way, he became a great golfer rather than a great ball-striker, which was the area of the game that always appealed more to Darren Clarke.
Among current practitioners, Luke Donald is probably the best exponent of doing things the Harrington way, though in his case the reward so far has been world number one status, rather than Major titles. Aware of his limitations in terms of length and ball-striking, Donald successfully concentrated on acquiring a short game which would have rivals drooling with envy.
Much has been made of the extensive tinkering which Harrington engaged in after capturing the last of his Major titles. The fact is that there was nothing unusual for him in so doing. Going back to his amateur days, he has always fiddled with technique.
Those who would attribute such tinkering to his decline, however, conveniently overlook the fact that he might have beaten Woods in a head-to-head for the Bridgestone Invitational of August 2009, but for a ruinously rushed 70th hole resulting in an eight, after being put on the clock by referee John Paramor. And he was only two strokes out of the lead in the PGA Championship a week later, only to run up a final round of 78 after another eight, this time at Hazeltine National's short eighth.
The fact was that while undoubtedly fiddling with technique at that time, his short game generally got him out of trouble. But a far more serious issue lay in wait.
On January 1, 2010, box grooves became illegal in the professional game on both sides of the Atlantic. Close observers of Harrington's game believe this had a profound impact on his scoring ability. Crisp, aggressive chipping and pitching from greenside rough had made him one of the game's most feared competitors. Now, he was to be deprived of this formidable edge.
There is no doubt but that the groove-change affected his confidence with approach irons. Instead of focusing on flags in the belief that he would get up and down if the target was missed, he now had to be far more circumspect with these shots. And, most crucially of all, greater pressure went on his putting.
I dislike the American obsession with statistics because it is so all-encompassing as to bolster any conceivable argument. Still, I find this one to be quite compelling. In 'Total Putting' on the US Tour this season, Harrington is ranked 172nd. Woods, with five tournament victories to his credit, is seventh.
Sam Snead was right when he talked about putting for dough. When Tom Watson blamed a "balky putter" on his failure to outscore Ballesteros for the 1984 Open at St Andrews, we never imagined how significant that statement would become. Yet the fact is that he never won another Major.
So, my belief is that Harrington's game will recover only if he can somehow regain his old putting touch. Actually 50 per cent of his one-time wizardry with the blade could be good enough.
Then, if a winning chance happens to arise, he will be able to draw on those wonderful achievements of the past for the confidence to finish the job.