Padraig Harrington: Curious case of Paddy and the postman

Irish champion took his game apart to see what made it work but now he must put it all back together again. James Corrigan speaks to Padraig Harrington
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The Independent Online

Never has a hat-trick hunter taken aim at glory with so many of his own fans anticipating him skewing it embarrassingly wide. Padraig Harrington probably realised this when he answered his front door recently to be confronted by a delivery man with a big parcel to be signed for in one hand and some personal baggage to be dispensed with in the other. "Be Jaysus, Padraig," folklore already has him saying. "You're playing a lot of shite at the minute."

Harrington can laugh at this reaction and, indeed, many similar ones that have greeted the atrocious form which has so far characterised the season following the immortal one of the year before. "I've got it all the time," the Irishman told The Independent on Sunday. "Advice, different suggestions, strange letters. There was one telling me to bathe in salt to get rid of all that radiation. Probably the funniest put-down, however, came from somebody close to me. My son Ciaran had run off into some long grass, someone asked where he was and this person replied, 'He's like his dad, he's in the rough'. She's a non-golfer, so she had obviously heard it from somebody else."

And therein lies the problem with winning back-to-back Opens, and after that back-to-back majors: that passenger known as excessive expectation which success foolishly brings along in its sidecar. Or is it a problem? Typically, Harrington has managed to convince himself of the contrary. "If people didn't realise I'd played badly for the last six months, it would mean I wasn't in the limelight and I was a journeyman pro," he said. "Even though I will have to work hard not to let it all get into my thinking, I'm better off in the situation I'm in."

Still, that situation was looking on the bleak outskirts of forlorn at the start of last week. With Turnberry just one more prep tournament away, Harrington had missed five cuts in a row and in the process had become the first professional to win two out of the last four majors and still not figure in the world's top 10.

Inevitably, the unlikelihood of him breaking a 53-year golfing void and winning three Opens in succession have been written large in the betting odds. Four others earned the chance to emulate Peter Thomson and they were priced thus: Arnold Palmer, 1963, 2-1; Lee Trevino, 1973, 6-1; Tom Watson, 1984, 5-1; Tiger Woods, 2007, 6-4. And Harrington in '09? 25-1 (or 33s if you can bother to go Googling). As shots at history go, the Dubliner was clearly adjudged to be armed with a water pistol.

But then came the Irish PGA Championship, and with it a glimmer and an omen. In 2007 Harrington won the Irish PGA in a play-off and went on to win at Carnoustie in a play-off. Last year he won the Irish PGA by four shots and went on to win at Birkdale by four shots. Yesterday he won the Irish PGA by seven shots. Is there any point the rest turning up at Turnberry? Very probably, yes. While Harrington was understandably chuffed, not everyone was so enthused after what was, in all honesty, little more than a club pro's event. Is Harrington any more likely to take his once in-a-lifetime chance of a treble? Again, there is the common view and there is the Paddy view. "It's never crossed my mind that this will be my only chance of three Opens in succession," he said. "I'm looking forward to my future in majors and I feel like I will win more. You see, winning three is much, much, much more difficult than winning two. Mathematically, I'm sure if you did the odds of it happening, the chances of a third is exponentially incredibly higher than two.

"It's a pointless thing to say I can go out and win it. That wouldn't help me win it. Even though I turn up and it will be three in a row, it's not like I'm winning all three in the one week. I'm just playing one event and I have to treat it like any of the majors I've played. It's not like I haven't tried 100 per cent in every one of them. I can't try any harder."

That might well sound like gibberish to some but then plenty of what Harrington utters invariably sounds like gibberish to somebody, somewhere. If ever an individual's ramblings can be described as being a window into the state of his mind then, on occasion, the words of Harrington are indeed as crystal clear as mud. This has been particularly true as he has struggled to explain the destructive tinkering he may or may not have made since his USPGA victory in Detroit last August.

Harrington has veered from revealing that his wife, relatives, caddie and yes, postman had urged him to stop all the swing changes and concentrate on what defined him as a great in the first place, to insisting that is just part of an ongoing process which he successfully paused when winning his three majors and which he will successfully pause again.

What does seem certain is that Harrington has failed to resemble Harrington, let alone to perform like Harrington. Even his revered short game has suffered an identity crisis. Whatever form the technical adjustments have taken, and whatever time frame they have followed, his search for perfection – or rather his search for the understanding of that perfection – has undeniably come at a cost. He explained his reasons for ripping apart a winning formula last week. "I probably wouldn't be able to accept performing without knowing why," he said. "I don't think I'd enjoy winning if I didn't know why I was winning. Understanding how I got there is the ultimate satisfaction. If somebody was the best at something in the world and they couldn't tell me why they were there I wouldn't be interested. That's my make-up. When Howard Hughes was a kid, he bought a Model T Ford or a Mercedes and pulled it apart to see how it all worked. That's me with my golf game."

The race to put it back together again in time for Turnberry has been one of the more intriguing challenges of this golfing campaign. Harrington is in no doubt that it is possible – "it can all turn around that quickly" – and neither is he in any doubt that, if his game is capable of entering him into that Sunday stretch mix, his psyche remains capable of doing the delivering. Two Opens and that American major have been enough to confirm that but he has found inspiration in the tapes of "The Duel in the Sun". While the majority watch the replays of Tom Watson's famous victory over Jack Nicklaus and are stunned by the quality of golf, Harrington was impressed by the competitive spirit shown by the pair.

"I remember hearing about the 'Duel' and got the tapes," he said. "What was phenomenal about it was that I had this impression of the absolute perfect golf being played. But when I actually watched it, it's more about the unbelievable competition, the fire in their eyes. They didn't hit every shot perfect, but they were recovering from every shot when they had to. It was the sheer 'I'm going to get this job done, regardless'. That's what made it so exciting and that's particularly what I admire about Watson. He was able to hit a bad shot and then stand up and just hit the greatest shot ever afterwards, like the one before didn't happen. And Nicklaus obviously overcame everything mentally. But Watson... it was just sheer bravado on his part. The ability to just keep ripping it like he's never missed a shot in his life, I love that attitude. Keeping it in the here and now."

That is a mantra which Harrington clearly lives by and certainly strives to play by. Everything he does is about the present and that is why he believes it will be possible to shrug off so many months of mediocrity. This is not the time for reflection or to go chasing the legends. He has enough contemporary rivals in his sights as it is. "No, I have never looked at who has won three majors in the history of the game," he claimed. "What I have looked at is who have won three majors who are currently playing the game. One hundred per cent I make a distinction. The last thing I want to do is to feel like what I've achieved in the game is the pinnacle. It may be, but I don't want to feel like that until I've retired.

"So I've continued to focus on trying to win more majors. I'm very aware that myself, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh are the only competitive players who have won three outside of Tiger. You know, the next one of the three of us to win four will set that player apart. At 37, I'm the youngest of those four players and that's very important for me.

"Yeah, when I finish up I'll look back and say 'I won three majors, who else did that?' And, of course, there'll be my standing in the history of Irish sport to analyse. But that's for sitting back in the rocking chair with the grandchildren and telling them the great stories of what you did. It's not for now. I think it's very important that players shouldn't get involved in that, because I've seen the harm on many a good player's career in dwelling on their success. You've got to move on."

In his own unique way Harrington has tried to do just that. So many steps backwards and yesterday just a few steps forward. It will all end up at Turnberry. Once there, who knows? Paddy will be a jewel in whatever sun consents to shine, regardless.

Life and times

Born: 31 August 1971, Dublin

Height: 6ft 1in

Education: Went to Colaiste Eanna secondary school at the same time as fellow Ryder Cup golfer Paul McGinley; he went on to complete an accountacy degree before turning professional.

Family: Married his wife Caroline in 1997; they have two sons, Patrick (born in 2003) and Ciaran (born in 2007).

Career: Turned pro in 1995 and has now won three majors – the Open back-to-back in 2007 and '08, and the 2008 USPGA. European Tour player of the year in 2007 and '08. He is coached by Sam Torrance's father Bob.

Pria de Eyto