Monday 20 November 2017

Still surfing the learning curve

Dermot Gilleece gets an insight into a very special relationship between a teacher and his star pupil

They've gone to Portugal, Pádraig Harrington and Bob Torrance, combining their special talents in preparation for a new tournament season. Now in its 12th year, their relationship is remarkable for the extent of its emotional depth, even by the most celebrated standards of players and their coaches.

And if Harrington needed a spur to reach further heights in the game, he has to think only of Torrance's ambitions for him. "He wants me to win another 10 majors, so I suppose that's what I have to do," said the Dubliner, with a sort of amused resignation.

The way they talk about each other prompts the thought as to how beneficial such a relationship would be to Tiger Woods at this time. While Torrance, unquestionably, became a sort of father-figure to the Dubliner after his dad died in July 2005, Woods has not had that comfort since his own father's passing less than a year later.

When we met last week, I asked Harrington if he wanted to see Woods back in action. "Oh yeah," came the unhesitating response. As to whether he would want it to happen fairly quickly, however, Harrington was deliberately measured. "What can I say to this?" he replied after a long pause. "He's obviously good at golf and when he's on the golf course he's happy and balanced. Comfortable. So I believe that competing and playing would bring balance back into his life.

"I also want to see him back out there in a personal sense, if only because I hate to see anybody being deprived of the opportunity of playing golf, either through injury or for whatever reason."

Then, in a clear reference to his own triumphs in the 2008 Open and PGA championships, he added: "If I win a tournament, it doesn't bother me at all whether Tiger's in the field or not. It's not as if I feel the need of him being there from a competitive standpoint. I want to see him back simply because he's great for the game."

Meanwhile, even at 76, being with Harrington continues to open up new horizons for Torrance. For instance, the grizzled Scot made his first trip to California last month to join his pupil at the Titleist Performance Institute in San Diego. While there, trained technicians did ultra-sound readings on the player's muscles. Biomechanical stuff, as he described it.

"It was aimed at ensuring that when I swing the golf club, I do so as efficiently as possible, so that I don't put my body under undue strain which will cause injury, thereby shortening my career," explained Harrington. "Bob remains very much the actual coach of what the club is doing, whereas they're concentrating on how the body is doing it. For instance, they can detect a pattern if a player is experiencing recurring injuries and advise what needs to be worked on."

In Harrington's case, this has centred on reduced flexibility in his back, stemming from recurring shoulder problems. And with his fitness expert Dr Liam Hennessy in tow, it will be part of his regime in Portugal, extending over 10 days up to next weekend.

As to his reliance on Torrance, did it concern Harrington that the man was getting old? "There's certainly nothing wrong with his coaching," he replied. "The amount of time he needs to spend with me isn't anything near what it used to be. We've made all the big changes. Our focus now is on ensuring that the key things are in place. It can be as quick as a simple word from Bob.

"He can correct my swing in 30 seconds. If he isn't here and I go off line, while I know a lot about my golf swing, the genius of Bob is to spot the part to fix first, which in turn fixes all the other parts. While he often tells me that there's nothing permanent in the golf swing, my swing doesn't change now like it once did."

This, in fact, is the only key area on which they differ. "Pádraig thinks there's such a thing as a low-maintenance swing, but in my view that's impossible," Torrance insisted. "You can never say you've got it. When I met Ben Hogan, he drummed into me that you've got to keep working on it."

By way of illustrating the point, Torrance went on: "I work with a local man, Jason McCreadie, here in Scotland and he shot two 66s to win a tournament last summer. A few weeks later he phoned me to say he'd just shot 84. How can that happen? It's a question I don't have the answer to. All I can say is that with Pádraig, we've worked on the same things for the last 11 years, hardly changing anything. That's what we've done, right from the beginning."

When I suggested Harrington's affection for Torrance ran deep, there was a marked softening of the player's voice. "He's great company," he said with a quiet smile. "Though our relationship is not quite father-son, it's not far away from it." Deep? "Yes it is. Definitely. And it's closer to father and son than you'd think." So there's love there? "Oh definitely. No doubt about it."

Almost whispering, he went on: "In Bob's company, I experience a lot of feelings that I had in my dad's company. And like every son with his father, there are things I'll argue with him about, trying to change him. And Ronan (Flood, his caddie) will point out that he's 76 years of age and he ain't going to change now. But I suppose I wouldn't be trying to change him if I didn't see him in that fatherly light."

From an equipment standpoint, he faces an adjustment to V-grooved wedges which he believes will mean "gains and losses" in chipping. "But it's going to mean a big difference out of the rough around the greens," he said. "You will never again see me spin the ball like I did against Vijay (Singh) in the play-off for the Honda Classic (2005). That was 35 yards out of Bermuda rough. An incredibly difficult shot, even with good grooves. It was probably the most incredible pitch I've ever hit.

"Not having won since August 2008, I believe my mind-set will be much more results-orientated than normal, certainly until I get the results I want." But is there a danger he would then revert to tinkering with his game, with costly consequences?

His mind guru, Dr Bob Rotella, thinks this unlikely. "I know he's committed to be ready to play golf when his year starts and he's not going to allow himself get lost in anything," said the American, who plans to meet Harrington at the Northern Trust Open at Riviera CC, starting on February 4. "I think he learned a lesson last year."

After Riviera, Harrington's season continues in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am a week later, followed by the Accenture Matchplay in Tucson, Arizona. All of which is essentially a preamble to the four major championships which will dominate his thinking. And in a change of strategy, he has decided to play only one lead-in tournament, rather than two, to each major this year.

In this context, 50 of the majors Woods has played as a professional -- 13 Masters, 13 US Opens, 12 Opens and 12 PGAs -- have covered a total of 29 venues. Remarkably, half of his major haul of 14 victories, however, were amassed at only three of these, Augusta National (4), Pebble Beach (1) and St Andrews (2), where this year's Masters, US Open and Open Championship take place. The PGA is at Whistling Straits.

These venues also hold great significance for Harrington. He acknowledges Augusta as the supreme shot-making test; Pebble as the scene of an enriching US Open performance in 2000 when he was tied fifth behind Woods and the Old Course as the much-loved scene of two Dunhill Links triumphs. Typically disciplined, however, he refuses to dwell sentimentally on a return to St Andrews having missed the 2005 Open there because of his father's death.

As to which major he would especially like to win this year, he said: "It would be hard to turn down a St Andrews Open, but because I haven't won the Masters or the US Open, I'd probably pitch for one of those. And if really pushed, I'd single out Pebble, because that's a chance I won't get very often."

In the meantime, there is work to be done. Of all the lessons he's learned from Torrance, the one that really sticks is that nothing comes easily in golf.

Sunday Independent

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