Among the subplots to this Open Championship, beneath the Tiger love-in, the Rory-fest, the hope that Lee Westwood or Luke Donald finally converts talent into major success, lurks a storyline that is equally compelling.
To ask Padraig Harrington to account for his returning form is to risk the loss of half a day. Few deliver a soliloquy quite like him. Mercifully, he inflicts the logorrhoea upon his audience with infectious charm.
Harrington’s eighth-place finish at the Masters was followed by a fourth at the US Open and seventh at the Irish Open on a links terrain every bit as demanding as Royal Lytham.
The pattern developing extended to the Scottish Open, where he again spent the weekend on the front page of the leaderboard to reinforce on the field of play his upbeat commentary off it. Golfers are forever on the verge of the discovery that will transform their game.
In Harrington’s case, the decision to separate from long-time coach and confidant Bob Torrance, in favour of Pete Cowen, coupled with the appointment of sports psychologist Dave Alred, to help bring order to the chaos between his ears, proved inspired if sensitive moves.
“It’s a difficult one, obviously. I hope that Bob is happy to see me playing well, but how does that reflect on him and how does it reflect on me? When it comes to the changes I’ve made, a lot of the changes, Pete has encouraged me to do things [to help] my shoulder injuries; to work within those things and to work within some of the stuff that I do in the gym to shorten my golf swing. Little things like that.
“It’s a different perspective on things, and certainly has soothed me in terms of my neck and shoulder injuries, which seem to have greatly, greatly reduced,” Harrington said.
“It’s not that one man is right and one man is wrong. You need a different view on things. Bob would be a great believer that
Mother Nature shortens your golf swing and that you shouldn’t go down that road. Pete was quite happy to tighten up my golf swing in that sense. It’s somewhere I’ve been thinking of going, and certainly with Bob, we’ve discussed it many times, and ultimately, maybe that’s where I wanted to go. I needed to step away. I’m not somebody who does anything behind somebody’s back. It’s been difficult. Bob is like a father figure to me. I love his company. It’s awkward, and I miss his company in that sense.”
Harrington is an inveterate tinkerer. Cowen is a great listener and brings a surgeon’s eye to the business of fixing a golf swing. Like Harrington, he will talk all day about the detail. Unlike Harrington, he gets to the meat of the matter quickly, which is apposite given the number of clients using his services on the range. The driver had become Harrington’s enemy. Insecurity on the tee undermined confidence elsewhere.
The return of something like consistent ball-striking has led to a commensurate improvement further up the pitch and a sense that the next victory is close.
“A win would be very important for me. I believe it’s coming. It doesn’t have to happen next week or the week after. I believe it’s coming. I’m in good shape.”
He turns 41 next month aiming to exploit a competitive peak he may not see again.
Experience has taught him how to attack the week of a major. Rejuvenated by Cowen’s swing enhancements, augmented by Alred’s focus techniques, buoyed by measurable improvements, the gap between theory and practice has narrowed, making Harrington the stealth pick at Lytham, a track the players respect more than love.
“Every player, no matter what the preparation is, they must feel when they get there that they are ready,” says Harrington.
“You can’t get to Wednesday evening and start panicking that you need to do more. You have to have a calmness about you, the feeling that what I have is good enough.”