Thursday 18 July 2019

Padraig Harrington: A woman will beat a high-quality men's field in my lifetime

Padraig Harrington. Photo: PA
Padraig Harrington. Photo: PA

Dermot Gilleece

Official figures released last week confirm man's success in the relentless pursuit of greater distance when applying golf club to golf ball. But Pádraig Harrington chose a well-loved showbiz mantra to suggest that 'we ain't seen nothing yet'.

In fact, the winner of three Major titles and captain of next year's European Ryder Cup team, boldly predicted: "In my lifetime, a woman is going to face men on equal terms and beat a high qualify field in a regular PGA Tour event."

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Some time before this happens, he expects women professionals to be regularly driving the ball in excess of 300 yards. And all because of a dramatic change in coaching attitudes.

Though he is still recovering from a broken left wrist sustained in early December, Harrington has not been idle. Last Wednesday, he did the honours in a small gathering to preview Friday's re-launch of Spawell Golf Academy, on which Peter Lawrie has acquired a five-year lease.

"It should nicely fill the gap until 2024, when I hope to resume competitive golf as a senior," said the 2008 Spanish Open champion. "By improving the facilities where my father once took me for lessons from Peter O'Connor, I hope to meet the teaching demands of ladies, beginners and juniors."

Having closed as a golf complex last September, Spawell remains the property of Dublin GAA who bought it for €9m in 2017. Plans for a stadium have been shelved, but the owners still intend to develop it as a centre of excellence to include training pitches.

For Harrington, memories of Spawell include the annual event which his one-time caddie, John O'Reilly, organised in aid of Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. The legendary bagman persuaded even Bernhard Langer to participate, though Harrington doubts that the German shared his own experience.

"The idea was that blind-folded professionals would play a match on the par-three course against blind golfers, giving them a shot-a-hole," said the Dubliner. "It was only after I was soundly beaten that I discovered the guy I played wasn't quite as blind as I was led to believe. John was having fun at my expense."

Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn (right) is using power to dominate, and I see a tremendous future for Brooke Henderson (left). She’s got a great swing and is not afraid to hit the ball’. Photo: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn (right) is using power to dominate, and I see a tremendous future for Brooke Henderson (left). She’s got a great swing and is not afraid to hit the ball’. Photo: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

In terms of a return to action, he has opted out of this week's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. Medical advice is that the break which he sustained in a fall down the stairs in his home hasn't fully healed. A further consultation tomorrow could have him set for the Genesis Open at Riviera on February 14. "Worst case, I expect to be definitely ready for the Honda two weeks later," he said.

Meanwhile, the distance figures issued jointly by the Royal and Ancient and the USGA appeared quite enlightening, until I spoke to Harrington. They claim, for instance, that the average driving distance from a sample of male amateurs in the UK is now 215 yards, an increase of 15 yards over the last 23 years. The corresponding distance for women is 148 yards.

Over the same period, the largest distance increase was 22 yards for men's highest handicappers; nine yards for single-figure handicappers and 17 yards for middle-range players. Then, on the professional tours, the approximate increase for men between 2003 and 2018 was 2.9 per cent, while the average for women was a more modest 0.9 per cent.

In summary, the game's legislators suggest that further significant increases at the highest level, are "undesirable". They added: "Whether these increases in distance emanate from advancing equipment technology, greater athleticism of players, improved player coaching, golf course conditioning or a combination of these or other factors, they will have the impact of seriously reducing the challenge of the game."

Buried in there in the middle is "improved player coaching". And according to Harrington, that's where the future lies. "Looking at the amateur figures, a 22-yard increase for high-handicappers doesn't seem real," he said. "I would have thought it's more likely to be zero. The two sports where we're used to exaggerated figures are golf and fishing. Except for elite players.

"Put a few young guys out on a golf course now and they're a danger to those around them. While hitting through dog-legs to adjoining fairways, they can clear even the highest trees. Twenty years ago, the good players weren't able to do that. Elsewhere, my experience of pro-ams suggests there's very little change up the handicap range."

In advising aspiring golfers, Arnold Palmer recommended that they should set out to smash the ball as hard as possible before learning how to keep it in play. "This was heresy to the leading coaches when I was coming through amateur ranks," said Harrington. "I learned the game at a time when they were actively discouraging players from hitting it long. When a big hitter delivered a bad shot, he was always categorised as wild.

"You only have to look back at David Higgins who was seriously long as a 16-year-old. He got so much grief, however, from officials saying he'd end up as a wild hitter like his father, Liam, that he changed his game. In truth, Liam Higgins used his great length to advantage. And we all remember the American player, Hank Kuehne, being told by Butch Harmon to rein in his game. That he hit it too long.

"You won't hear pundits talking about this, but the biggest change I see down the road is going to be in women's golf. The world number one [Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn] is using power to dominate, and I see a tremendous future for the Canadian girl [Brooke Henderson]. She's got a great swing and is not afraid to hit the ball. And greater power is going to transform wedge play for women."

He went on: "It's all about attitude. Looking at the success of guys like Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy and most recently, Cameron Champ, kids nowadays are discovering that length is actually a desirable commodity. This in turn has prompted a seismic shift in coaching, which shouldn't surprise us.

"From Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods, the best player in the world almost invariably had length advantage. Nick Faldo was probably a notable exception and the compensation for him was that accuracy off the tee saved him a lot of strokes.

"I swing my six iron now 10mph quicker than I would have swung it in 1996, with all the critical details of the club being the same. That's because at 47, I'm now fitter, stronger. It's not the technology that's changed, it's my attitude. I hit the ball harder now than I ever did. My regret is that I didn't know this 20 years ago. Modern players are aware that in looking for length, they run the risk of being a little inconsistent. But on form, they're going to play great."

This length advantage is accentuated, of course, by sunnier climes, very different from our current scene.

"The numbers we're looking at on television from the US bear no relation to the Irish game," said Harrington. "Today, here in Ireland, I couldn't carry the ball with my driver any more than 245 yards, whereas it would be 320 in Phoenix.

"Here in the winter, with a five mile an hour wind into me, I would hit a seven iron between 135 and 140 yards. In the same wind on a warm day in the States, I would hit it 190. So, you're looking at 50 yards of a difference between the two countries."

Finally, he returned to women's golf and the precise, pat-a-cake image it once projected. "There's a gifted 14-year-old girl watching TV somewhere right now, who is being coached to hit the hell out of the golf ball and to hope it goes straight," he said. "And I can't wait to see her in full flow."

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