An improbable parallel between kicking rugby goals and making a swing in golf could determine the sporting well-being of Pádraig Harrington this year. The 40-year-old left home yesterday for South Africa, where he will have his first tournament outing of the new season at Fancourt later this week.
From the Volvo Champions event, Harrington heads for Abu Dhabi and a crucial get-together with English kicking coach Dave Alred, who has Ireland rugby outhalf Jonathan Sexton among his clients. The move effectively dates back to the practice ground at Killarney during last July's Irish Open when he talked about making changes to his backroom staff after disclosing that he was splitting with long-term coach Bob Torrance.
Alred was targeted as one of those changes, and Harrington met him twice that weekend, the second when he was working with Sexton on the Sunday. "Now the plan is to have a trial week with Dave while I compete in Abu Dhabi and again the following week when I'll be taking a break," he said. "If those two contrasting trial periods work out, he'll become my practice coach, designing drills that will help me transfer my form in practice onto the golf course."
Harrington first met Alred with Paul McGinley during the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor in October 2010. With a curiosity typical of tournament golfers, he wondered about this new face on tour. Enquiries revealed he was already working wonders with Luke Donald, now the world number one.
If he had any sense, of course, the Dubliner would have kept this to himself. When I wondered, with his endless tinkering in mind, if he had regrets about anything he had done since capturing the third of his three Major championships in August 2008, he replied: "Yes. I should have kept my mouth shut. I shouldn't have explained myself at any stage. That's the big mistake I made."
But Harrington's weakness is that he likes to talk. In the process, he made himself the target of criticism, even though he had been engaged in swing changes since 2006, the year before his Major breakthrough. "In fact, I made vast changes between 2007 and 2008 and continued doing so," he claimed. "My problem was that after 2008 I was being asked more about it, because of my higher profile. And I gave honest answers. I would have given the same answers in 2006 but the questions weren't being asked."
Meanwhile, Alred, a three-handicap golfer, was making his mark. "The similarities between golf and goal-kicking are huge," he said. "It is about the one-shot occasion. You are on your own, you are over that ball and you have no team-mates with you, or friends, if it doesn't go over."
He added: "I oscillate between the mental coach and the performance coach but broadly speaking, what I am trying to do mentally with Luke (Donald) is to create an air of inevitability about everything he does. When he stands over that shot, the expectation is that it will go exactly where he intends it to go, whatever the pressure. In golf, that is a tough thing to do because golf is a thing of imperfections and human beings are not robots."
Harrington could trace Alred's work with Donald back "about two years." In fact, the pair first met in December 2009 when the English player was ranked 32nd in the world. Then, a month later in Miami, they established a lasting relationship.
"He made a massive difference to Luke's game and I wanted to know why this had come about," Harrington went on. "It's not enough simply to acknowledge that Luke is more confident and a better putter. I'm not going to say publicly that Alred is solely responsible for the difference in Luke's game, but I'm convinced their association has been a huge factor. And I'm dumbfounded that this has gone largely unnoticed.
"In pushing Luke to the next level, Dave is the one who insisted on him having a physio on tour. He also advised on hiring a trainer. So yes, I'm learning from Luke, which is what my Abu Dhabi meeting with Dave is all about."
Meanwhile, by his own estimation, Harrington made three constructive improvements during what was otherwise a disappointing 2011. For the last eight months, he has been clear of a nagging neck injury which had been liable to affect him for up to six tournaments a year. He believes he has got to the root of a swing problem dating back to 2006; though he may continue to make the odd bad swing, at least he will now know the source of the problem.
And after a fruitful association with Bob Rotella, he has linked up with another American sports psychologist, Tom Murphy, who has worked with Sweden's Henrik Stenson.
"His background is in baseball," said Harrington. "I had read his book, Inner Excellence and agreed with everything in it. We had a few chats in Singapore and Malaysia (in November) and by highlighting just one point, he made a massive difference to my last two events. I nearly won in Malaysia and walked off the course as if it was a stroll in the park. It was only afterwards that I became disappointed when I realised how close I was to winning."
Early tournaments this year will be crucial in Harrington's drive to lift himself from a current 85th into the top 60 of the world rankings, not least with a view to qualifying for WGC events. But with only three outings before the first of these, the Accenture Match Play starting in Tucson on February 22, it's a formidable assignment.
He knows that without WGC qualification, his chances of making the Ryder Cup team for Medinah next autumn are slim. "Even at that, I would need to have a really good year," he admitted. "And to get into the top 60 I would have to win in Abu Dhabi. A win at Pebble Beach (his first US assignment on February 9) wouldn't do it. And if I finish fourth in all three events, I won't get in. So it's tough."
In this context, simply getting his game back on track came across as an over-riding priority, so as not to have the worry about results like he did last season. And with rich irony, he feels sure that Donald, whose short game is vintage Harrington, has shown him the way.
"Luke has set the bar in a different place and I'll have to make certain changes to catch up," he said, according Donald a lot more respect than the player feels he's getting from the public at large. "With the exception of my short game, getting my practice form onto the course has been a problem for me, big time. So, if we work well together, Dave Alred will join my backroom boys."
He concluded: "If, on the other hand, it doesn't work out, I'll simply have to find another way to acquire better practice habits."
It would have been difficult to imagine Donald as a role model for Harrington when he trailed 63rd in the Dubliner's wake at Carnoustie in 2007 and was plagued by wrist problems the following year. But that's the curious way of the tournament golfer's world. And Harrington's not too proud to admit it.
Sunday Indo Sport