Padraig Harrington joked in the week that he would spend two years on a desert island if he knew it would improve his game. In truth, there was only one lonely place where the Dubliner craved to feel the heat. It is called the final grouping and that is exactly where he was last night as he set out as leader in the third round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Whatever was to unfold on that Firestone layout in Ohio, Harrington recognised the glare would not be leaving him anytime soon. This week will see him trying to defend his USPGA title, the third of his majors which he won with such cool-eyed panache in Detroit.
He will be doing so in the company of Tiger Woods, with whom he was yesterday drawn for the first two rounds. This could be the showdown for which golf has been waiting. "Judgement Time in Hazeltine", as Don King may or may not have put it.
Of course, this was meant to happen at The Masters in April when Woods had returned from his knee surgery. In the world No 1's absence, Harrington had won his back-to-back Opens and then his back-to-back majors. There was clearly only one challenger to Tiger's hegemony. But by the time he had returned, so had Paddy; to the wretched form of his formative years. Unbelievably to most, Harrington had ripped up the technique which had established him as Ireland's best ever sportsman. So Woods would have to go picking a fair fight elsewhere.
But now, eight months into one of the most talked-about swing changes in golfing history, and the old Harrington is emerging, if not in the truncated, more controlled motion, then certainly on the scoreboard. Akron had witnessed Harrington leading a top-flight tournament for the first time in 2009. In the wake of his first-round 64, fans, journalists, players, even Woods, spoke excitedly of Harrington "turning his corner". In fact, the only one who was seemingly left cold by this golfing resurrection was the Irishman himself. He alone – well perhaps along with his coach Bob Torrance – had been expecting it. "I actually found what I was looking for at the French Open two weeks before the Open," explained Harrington.
Perhaps now the insults will stop. One American commentator labelled Harrington "the worst player ever to win three majors" and although all the other whispers put together failed to match up to the crass stupidity of that statement, their tone was still on a similar frequency. After his 70 on Friday, which left him five behind Harrington, Woods alluded to all the doubters who railed against his own radical swing changes in 2000 and then 2004.
"Thankfully nobody told me I was wrong or if they were saying that, I wasn't listening," said Harrington, when told about the world No 1's comments. "That's my nature. I'd be the very stubborn one who if I was told to do something, I'd want to do it my way. That's what's got me here, that's what will keep me going forward. I'm not interested in standing still.
"I used to have a reputation for finishing second all the time. It came up time and time again. It didn't bother me. It's funny, I think back on it now, and there were times when I'd be leading the tournament on a Saturday evening, and I'd go to the range and work on my swing to make it better for the following week, or the following month, or the following year – with total disregard for the next day.
"There's no doubt that's been the case for the last six or seven months. But because I've now found what I've been looking for... well, it's freed up my mind to go back to working on the important things – the scoring, the short game, and my mental game."
All three appeared to be back to their sharpest on the first two days at Firestone and the question was if he could keep it going. Was the real Harrington about to stand up again and try to cause Woods just his fourth blank major year in 13 years as a professional? Ding dong, Hazeltine.
Tip of the week
No 13: draw, fade or straight
Why do golfers want to hit the ball straight? Because it's the hardest shot to play. Straight is the only shot that flies away from its target rather than to it. If you are a fader of the ball, you know 90 per cent of the time the ball will start left and come back to the right. So it is always flying towards the target. If you try to hit the ball straight and don't, it is flying away from the target and will only continue off-line. All golfers have a right-to-left or left-to-right game. My main shot is a draw, so when I warm up for a tournament, I spend my time on the range learning how much the ball is drawing on that day. Every day is different. The secret is to use what you do naturally on the day. Don't fight it.
Simon Iliffe, Head Professional, Purley Downs GC, Surrey. www.theshortgame.co.ukReuse content