Sunday 19 January 2020

Punch-drunk Harrington on the ropes

Triple Major champion is dazed and confused but old fire can spark revival

This loss of composure illustrates just how brittle Harrington has become. Photo: Getty Images
This loss of composure illustrates just how brittle Harrington has become. Photo: Getty Images

Karl MacGinty

EVERYTHING is perfect. You've three Major titles on the trophy shelf at home. You're back swinging the club as well as you've ever done.

And, just 24 months after becoming the first man in more than 100 years to win back-to-back titles at golf's oldest championship, you've a real spring in your step as you march to the first tee at St Andrews for the 150th Open.

Fifteen minutes and a calamitous six strokes later, your confidence and composure lies like shattered china around your feet. What on earth has happened to Padraig Harrington at St Andrews?

Where's the guy who had fire in his eyes and crushed Sergio Garcia with the sheer weight of his conviction on Sunday at the 2008 US PGA Championship?

After a nice tee shot down the middle of the first fairway, Harrington hit an attempted 80-yard pitch shot so fat with his lob wedge, it bounced once before falling into the Swilken Burn in front of the green.

This astonishing error was followed in quick succession by an untidy chip which scuttled some 20 feet past the hole and two putts for a double-bogey, a truly shocking start for a player renowned around the world for his short-game skills.

Harrington never really recovered as he posted a first-round 73, a dozen strokes more than the record-equalling 63 his brilliant young compatriot Rory McIlroy needed to get around St Andrews that morning.

Problems with his wedges and, in particular, his putter would be compounded by Friday's howling gales as Harrington stumbled haplessly to a 77 and missed the cut by four on six over par.

It was Harrington's third missed cut in seven Majors since his victory at Oakland Hills, a stretch in which he contended only once, in last year's US PGA at Hazeltine National, until a cataclysmic quintuple-bogey on the par-three eighth hole on Sunday.

The most disquieting feature of the Dubliner's performance over the opening 36 holes at St Andrews was his putting. He'd worked on it almost until dusk on Thursday, standing on two blue, squishy bags as he did so and, seemingly, hitting down a line of swing.

And when play was halted for 65 minutes on Friday, as Harrington stood in the middle of the first fairway, he headed straight for the putting green by the first tee for a little more practice, this time without any exotic-looking accessories. Sadly, it all was to no avail and when play resumed Harrington confessed he'd "putted horribly", adding: "I'm long enough in this game to realise what putting is like and it goes like that. You roll in a few and everything is good, but (if it goes the other way) you lose confidence in your reading, you lose confidence in your aiming ...

"I'd a real issue today. Every time I went to go through my routine -- and I ground my putter very early in my routine -- I was panicking about the ball moving (in the howling wind). Of course, I was distracted by that."

For the second day in a row, Harrington would take 33 putts, leaving him 92nd in the field in a discipline at which he usually excels.


This loss of composure illustrates just how brittle Harrington has become.

And in the absence of any wins on Tour since August 2008, one can only surmise that Harrington has found the weight of his reputation as a triple-Major champion, the expectation which accompanies his status as one of the most accomplished players in the modern game, too much to bear.

When asked if winning three Majors made it easier or more difficult to perform in golf's most exacting arena, he said: "You wouldn't be more relaxed, no. Winning Majors only brings more expectation and it certainly makes it harder going forward, that's for sure.

"Look how long it took Phil (Mickelson) to get to four. Look how Ernie (Els) got stuck on three, Vijay (Singh) too. It doesn't make it any easier."

Trying to get to that fourth Major brings its own expectations and pressures. "Though winning three definitely brings its own pressure, I think you also know you can win one if you get it all right," Harrington added. "This just wasn't my week. I got blown off the golf course (on Friday) and didn't do the right things on Thursday, the little simple things I'm normally strong at."

Yet the questions remain. Why has he become so unerringly inconsistent in recent times, following brilliant rounds with the mundane or vice versa?

Sure, he's had five top-10 finishes in 15 outings in 2010 and his scoring average (70.11) places Harrington in joint 12th on the US PGA Tour.

Yet four missed cuts, including at headline events at Augusta, the Players Championship at Sawgrass and St Andrews, help explain why he's tumbled 12 places this season to 17th in the world rankings, and why Harrington is wallowing €293,223 and 39.32 world ranking points adrift of earning automatic selection on the European Ryder Cup team for Celtic Manor.

He needs to win next week's '3' Irish Open in Killarney or secure a top-two finish at Firestone or the US PGA at Whistling Straits to put himself back into the frame. Is Harrington capable of delivering such a performance at present? On the evidence of St Andrews, the blunt answer is no.

Is he all washed up at the Majors at the tender age of 38? Certainly not!

The bloody-minded defiance Harrington showed in winning those three Major titles has been replaced by uncertainty, spawning doubt even in the short-game skills upon which his achievements have been founded.

Yet the work ethic which helped Harrington attain those heady heights and the know-how he acquired in the process, ensure he can once again become a force at the Majors.

For sure, an impressive new generation of champions has appeared on golf's Grand Slam stage, not least last Sunday's winner Louis Oosthuizen or the hero of Pebble Beach Graeme McDowell.

Meanwhile, 'kids' like Rory McIlroy, who recovered brilliantly from that chastening 80 in the worst of last Friday's weather to register a fighting third place at St Andrews, will make established champions like Tiger Woods, Harrington, Mickelson and Els look to their laurels. Yet you write these guys off at your peril. After playing 36 holes with Harrington at the British Open, Tom Watson underlined the respect in which the Dubliner is held.

"He struggled. He just didn't hit enough good shots," said Watson. "But the wonderful thing about Padraig is that he fights to the end. He doesn't give up. That's what I love about him."

Harrington's problems rest more in his psyche than his swing. His coach Bob Torrance made it plain on the eve of the Open that the Dubliner was hitting the ball as well, probably better, than when he won his three Majors, adding: "If he is in focus, he'll win the Open again." Clearly he wasn't.

Harrington's found it difficult since Oakland Hills to perform up to expectations, especially his own, and it's been intensely frustrating to watch him punch so dismally below his weight.

Every event that passes without a win compounds the pressure. He's down, dizzy and in dire need of help from the corner; but Harrington's certainly not out.

Irish Independent

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