Harrington's good old habits outlast revamp

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The Independent Online

To the baffled outsider, Padraig Harrington has always lived by the motto, "if it ain't broke, DO fix it". Yet here yesterday the Irishman's incessant tinkering did appear to have paid instant dividends.

A first-round 65 hauled Harrington into second place, one behind Charl Schwartzel, after the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. His bogeyless beginning to the new season seemed the perfect justification for the latest swing overhaul.

Except Harrington later confessed, in his own inimitable style, that he had not been able to employ all of the changes in a round which featured five birdies and a rather fortuitous eagle when the pin helped the cup gobble up an overly enthusiastic chip on his penultimate hole. "I felt more like my old self than my new self," he said. "I could see myself creeping into old habits."

In truth, it would have been impossible for the new self to walk uninterrupted down these desert fairways. In his six-week off-season, the 39-year-old has made approximately 20 alterations. Like a contestant on The Generation Game trying to recall what was on the conveyor belt, Harrington manfully attempted to list them. "First of all I changed my grips," he began. "I changed my posture, I changed my routine, I don't waggle over the ball any more. I only look up once, instead of twice. I changed my plane in the backswing... I changed my shoulder turn. I'm trying to tuck my chin in more."

And so he continued, eventually finishing thus: "I also changed my chipping action and my bunker action and my putting routine. Yeah, I had a good six weeks."

It was tempting to ask if he kept anything the same (his make of socks, perhaps?) although not as tempting as another query. "All of this makes me wonder how you ever won three majors before making these changes?" came the inevitable question from one journalist, bemused at a results-sheet which shows just one win since the USPGA three years ago. "I know a lot of people look at my highs of '07 and '08 and wonder why I changed things," explained Harrington. "But I've been obsessively changing things since I was 15. It's just I was making changes in the spotlight. It keeps me interested. It makes me get up in the morning."

There are, however, reminders of the major glories, not least a furry insect in his bag. For Christmas, of his own volition his seven-year-old son, Patrick, bought him a headcover in the shape of a ladybird in memory of what he dared put in his father's newly-acquired Claret Jug at Carnoustie in 2007. They are deep thinkers, these Harringtons.

Still, Padraig will have to go some if he is prevail here this weekend. Schwartzel is an ominous opponent. Indeed, the 26-year-old is the hottest player on the planet. In his last four events he has finished second, fourth, fourth and first. Furthermore, this 64 made Schwartzel 60-under for his last 13 rounds. Not one of them has been higher than 70. Astonishing.

In a tie for third comes Graeme McDowell who survived a video inquisition into his oscillating ball on the 18th. Last year's US Open champion was relieved to sign for a 66. Meanwhile, Lee Westwood, the world No 1, was content with a season-opening 69. But Phil Mickelson could only manage a 71.

* Davis Love was last night confirmed as the US Ryder Cup captain. The 46-year-old, who made six appearances in the tournament as a player and was Corey Pavin's vice-captain at Celtic Manor three months ago, will be trying to regain the trophy from Jose Maria Olazabal's Europe next year in Chicago.