Padraig Harrington: Why I'm still intrigued by the game of golf

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Sometimes the good guys do win, and that’s what happened in March at the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic.

At PGA National in Palm Beach, triple Major champion Padraig Harrington ended a seven-year wait for a victory. 

The 43-year-old’s play-off success in Florida over American Daniel Berger – and ahead of a GB&I-themed chasing pack of Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, Russell Knox, Jamie Donaldson and Luke Donald – was as unexpected as it was welcome. 

It’s not that Harrington had been missing cut after cut since he won the last of his Majors in 2008. But when you clinch consecutive Opens at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale in 2007 and 2008 and throw in the US PGA title for good measure, almost anything after that will look fairly mundane.

So, following his first winless year on tour for a decade in 2009, the deterioration continued. He started this season playing out of the past champion’s category after finishing 188th in the FedEx Cup and was 297th in the world prior to the Honda.

But Harrington is naturally upbeat and if anyone could turn around a period of mediocrity it was the ebullient Dubliner.

Sure enough, he was in buoyant mood when we met him on the Wilson Staff tour truck before the BMW Championship at Wentworth, despite the fact he was severely jet lagged after flying in from the US a few hours earlier and nursing an injury (which forced him to withdraw from the event). 

Neither his tiredness or his injury stopped him from talking – thankfully, not much does. And it was with typical candour he discussed the relief he felt after the Honda win, and the tough times that had preceded it. It made for illuminating listening, for Harrington is rarely less than fascinating. 

Was your win at the Honda a shock to you? Or had you maintained belief in your game? 
I’ve always believed. My best trait is that I’m very optimistic. Yeah, if I have a bad day on the course I’m disappointed when I get back that evening. But the minute I get back out there the next day or practice the following week I always look forward, not back. It’s a big thing to win; it’s what it’s all about. I play my game very much day to day so in my head I’m the same golfer the week after the win as I was the week before the win. I wasn’t too low before I won although I must admit I did get a big buzz out of winning again. 

Did you ever fall out of love with golf as you went through those challenging times? 
My enthusiasm didn’t wane at all. I’m very optimistic by nature, which is a big help and every week I play I’m out there focused on doing something – all the time. The belief is there and a win doesn’t change that: I’ve got the same attitude. I’m not thinking ‘OK, I’ve won now and that’s it and everything is rosy in the garden’. It’s not like that: you still have good and bad weeks. But now, several weeks after, it’s very much business as usual trying to figure out the best way of getting my game in order on a consistent basis.

There seemed to be universal delight that you had won again – is that how it felt? 
The biggest shock to me was how people reacted. People were genuinely thrilled to see me win, which was very nice – apparently the whole of Ireland practically closed down to watch it unfold on TV. That really shocked me. I don’t see that. I just do my thing every day. I just play golf. 

Was there relief you’d finally won again?
One of the biggest things that came out was the sense of relief from my family that I’d won. Why is that? Well, they have to put up with people telling them things they’d never ever say to my face. People can be very blunt when it comes to your family and friends, saying stuff like ‘what’s he doing?’ At the end of the day nobody knows what’s going on, the full picture. These people weren’t like that to me, though. I don’t read the papers. I wouldn’t have known what other people were going through… in my world everything was hunky dory.

What has the win done for your confidence? 
It’s good for the ego. Everybody has an ego, every sportsman anyway. It doesn’t mean you have to show it, but everybody has it. The most important thing in sport is confidence and self-belief and wherever that comes from, it all works as long as you believe it. It was hard work, but only because I worked hard to get back into the winners’ circle. I hadn’t lost any motivation or drive. Would I want to do anything else? No. I love doing what I do, I’m intrigued by it. 

So what went wrong in order for you to go from winning three Majors to struggling to stay in the world’s top 300?  
A strong mental game won me the Majors and I struggled to live up to that – I became intolerant of my focus. Still, to this day, I’m still very intolerant with my focus. I put a little bit too much pressure on myself when it comes down to focus, which I suppose comes with age. You’re not as innocent as you were and carry a bit of baggage. Also, I suppose I’m not as fearless as I used to be. When you realise the heights you can reach because of focusing properly, it made it harder for me to focus. I am a perfectionist. I want to get better – there’s no doubt about it. My father told me ‘You can’t have perfection but you can seek excellence’, so let’s say I’m seeking excellence.

You’re constantly striving to improve?
I absolutely love golf. I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I’m fascinated by it, intrigued by it. I love what’s going on, I love watching other players to see what they’re doing and figuring out what I need to do to improve. 

Is that why you’re famed as a tinkerer? 
That’s one of the great misnomers. I changed my swing between 2007-08, but did nothing different in 2009 that I wasn’t doing in 2006 and 2007. I’m always constantly tinkering with that side of stuff, but it had nothing to do with the golf swing: what went wrong with my game was my focus – I tried too hard and then if I hit a poor shot, I’d get down on myself over it and put too much emphasis on it. I was the opposite of being ‘free’ when it came to the crunch – everything was purely mental. 

Was there a ‘eureka’ moment when you realised you were ready to win again? 
The week before I won, in the Northern Trust Open in LA, was a typical week for me. I got out onto the course and played really hard, by that I mean really grinding it out. I walked off the course thinking I should be signing for a 68 or 69 instead of a 72. I was always on the cut line, always on the margin. Always struggling. I played early on the Saturday and shot a typical 72 and remember standing at the top of the hill outside the locker room – the practice ground was at the bottom – and thinking, because I was out early and feeling tired, maybe I should call it a day. Another player told his caddie he was packing up for the day and headed off, but for some reason I decided against following him, thinking it would be a good idea to do some practice. So I went down there and, you know what, I found quite a bit of peace down there, played quite nicely the next day and went and won the following week because of it. We’re talking about very narrow margins, what falls into place.

Would you rather win once a year and miss lots of cuts or earns lots of top-25 finishes? 
Golf is a sport where you’re actually better off being erratic rather than consistent. You’re better off having your wins, that’s what you’re remembered for (he’s finished runner-up more than 30 times!). The problem you have in America is with statistics showing a player having six top 25s so far this year. That’s just horrible! Why would you be telling anybody you’ve had six top 25s? I wouldn’t play the game to have six top 25s: it’s either the chance of winning… or nothing. 

How much harder is it now in your 40s to win out there? 
The standard keeps going up. It’s like a 100m dash. Everybody lines up at the line and they all just sprint off. If you’re not four‑under par after nine holes, you’re feeling like ‘oh my God, how am I going to make it up here’. It’s very, very hard for the young guys to set themselves apart. It’s hard to become a household name. You can do it for six weeks, three months maybe, but to consistently win tournaments and contend, it’s incredibly difficult. It’s a big, big pond out here with a lot of talent in it. 

How will you build on your success for the rest of the year?
I’m not happy and content that I’ve won the Honda and that’s it for the rest of the year. I’m not necessarily looking to do this, that or the other, with the exception of getting into the top 15 for a shot at next year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. That’s a big goal, I’d love to go to the Olympics. It’s the same battle every day, trying to get the long game and the short game all coming together at the same time which usually delivers a winning week. I see great signs and I’m happy with that: I definitely know what I want to do, although that doesn’t mean I can do it all the time. I’m certainly not in control of things, but I have a plan of what I’m trying to do which gives me a certain amount of enthusiasm to get out there and play. When I go to the course, I’m quite excited this could be it.

HARRINGTON ON...

Making the Ryder Cup
I hope to play well enough to play at Hazeltine next year and I need to finish in the top 50 in the world so I can get in all the events for 2016. The big play for me is that when Ryder Cup qualification starts in September I’m in all the big events and gathering up those important points. Otherwise it’s going to prove hard to make the team.

Missing the Ryder Cup
It’s terrible when you’re looking on from the outside, sitting at home watching it unfold on the television from the couch – it’s not a good experience and one that I don’t want to repeat. 

What he’s working on
I played well at The Players – as good as I’ve played from tee to green – but I didn’t putt very well so I’ve been doing a lot of work on my putting. Generally my putting has improved and I’ve been putting very nicely since I changed to a Wilson Infinite (South Side model) which has helped me feel much more comfortable with alignment and getting a good strike on it. 

Mind control
I’ve been doing some work with Steve Peters and as a result I’m more mentally focused at the moment, just trying to figure out what’s going on more holistically – it’s not necessarily about one shot, but more about the whole attitude thing around it.

What’s in the bag
Driver: TaylorMade R1 (9°)
Fairway woods: TaylorMade Burner Superfast 3-wood (13.5°); Wilson Staff 5-wood
Utility clubs: Wilson Staff FG Tour V2
Irons: Wilson Staff FG Tour V2 irons (5-PW)
Wedges: Wilson FG Tour TC (50, 54, 60°)
Putter: Wilson Staff Infinite (South Side)