Sunday 19 January 2020

If it's good enough for them, Padraig...

Padraig Harrington
Padraig Harrington

Karl MacGinty

WINSTON CHURCHILL was talking about the perplexing ways of Russia when he said, "it's a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Since they were first uttered in 1939, Churchill's words have been used in many contexts, yet few seem as appropriate as in the case of Padraig Harrington.

The Dubliner's descent from the heady heights of his third Major victory in 13 months at the 2008 US PGA has been head-spinning.

In its initial stages, Harrington's decline stemmed from swing changes he made in the winter of '08 and which badly affected his performance in the first six months of '09.

Despite an impressive rally in the second half of that year, Harrington's overall game and his confidence returned to a state of flux in 2010 and remained that way through the first half of last year.

Some were baffled by his initial decision to tinker with a winning formula, but golf's elite never stop digging for gold.

For example, Tiger Woods is grappling with the third major swing change of his career, while former world No 1 Martin Kaymer screwed himself up with last year's effort to adapt his game for Augusta.

In that respect, Harrington is lucky. The work he's done since July with Pete Cowen has yielded dramatic results. Never has he been more content with his long game.

However, this has coincided with a deeply perplexing decline in Harrington's putting. Once the bedrock of his game, it's now "my Achilles heel".

Take last month's Transitions Championship. On Thursday, Harrington one-putted 14 greens and holed out from as far away as 75 feet as he posted the low round of his career, a staggering 61.

However, the following day's 73 featured 33 putts, 11 more than the first round, a tortured display that included one inexplicable miss from 22 inches. Streaky or what?

Then Harrington tied eighth at the US Masters, his first top 10 in a Major since the 2009 US PGA. He stroked his putts so consistently over four days at Augusta, we shrugged off the series of birdie chances he missed on Sunday.

Yet Harrington's problems on the greens at Harbour Town last week were impossible to overlook as he missed a cut for the first time in 2012. Over 36 holes at the RBC Heritage, he let no fewer than six putts of between three and five feet go a-begging. It was harrowing to watch.

At Augusta, Harrington insisted: "Put me on any of those machines that measure the pace of my stroke, the length, elevation, rhythm, strike. Everything in my putting stroke is perfect."

Sorry pal, it may look good on computer but, in the heat of battle, it appears angst-ridden and twitchy.

Harrington explained at Augusta how, generally, he has performed best over the years when in conflict with elements of his putting.

That may sound like a riddle but Harrington is always most comfortable when he has a specific fault upon which to focus. It leaves him less prone to distraction by other thoughts or doubts.

Dave Pelz, the short-game guru who helped Phil Mickelson transform himself into a Major champion, believes "it's part of the evolution of the (ageing) golfer that he gets increased opportunity for confusion" on the green.

"Most writers say as you get a little older, your nerve endings get a little twitchy and you lose your nerve but that's not true at all," he adds.

"The same nerves you use to putt with are also used to play irons, chip shots, wedges and drives. The body only has one set of nerves. What you do get is confusion."

It's interesting how many world-class performers try the belly putter in their 40s -- Vijay Singh, Retief Goosen, Ernie Els and, albeit briefly last summer, Mickelson.

Pelz believes a stint with the belly putter gives the great an opportunity "to feel where their stroke should be" because it forcibly eliminates rotation by the forearms and wrist hinge.

Like Mickelson, they then can successfully apply that feeling when they resume with the conventional putter.

Remember, Lefty blitzed Tiger at Pebble Beach and could well have won the Masters but for his 'Dr Hackenbush' impersonation at Augusta's fourth on Sunday.

Harrington believes anchoring any club to the body is contrary to the spirit of golf and, as R&A ambassador, one should take note when he says it'll soon be banned.

Though he feels his stroke is perfect, Harrington might at least be helped by the distraction a short spell with the belly putter might provide. Even a little guilt would be preferable to today's damning uncertainty.

Go on Padraig ... be a devil and give the belly putter a try!

Irish Independent

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