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Harrington's highs and lows

The Big Read

By Liam Kelly

This is Pádraig Harrington in 1996, the year he makes his debut on the European Tour. He is in South Africa. The date is Sunday, February 25.

He's phoning home using a payphone - no internet, Skype, or mobile phones in those days - to tell his family how he has played in the FNB Players Championship in Durban.

When his mother, Breda, comes on the line, Harrington blurts out his news: "You'll never believe this mum, I was terrible. I just hit it everywhere. I was really terrible, but I finished 49th. I won £1,480, they are just giving it away."

And right there and then, Harrington is a believer. He can play on this Tour. He can earn money playing badly, and he knows he can play much, much better.

This is Pádraig Harrington, 2015.

"A part of me has become cynical.

"When I came out on Tour and for ten-15 years on Tour, a new guy would come out on Tour and I'd look at him, and I'd go, 'God, how can I compete with him. Look at the way he hits the golf ball. Now, a new guy comes out on Tour and I go, 'Wow, that guy hits the ball well. God, this Tour is just going to beat him up, pull him apart. This place is going to tear that lad apart'."

Such is the voice of the grizzled veteran, aged 44, having experienced the highs and lows through two decades and over 600 tournaments, with 29 victories worldwide, including three Major championships.

The wide-eyed innocence may have evaporated, but I'm thinking he's not really as 'cynical' as he says. Certainly not in terms of retaining a positive belief that he can be competitive in 2016.

"Thankfully, I believe I can get better as a player. I haven't lost that. I'm just a little bit more worn down by it all, but I do believe I'm going to have a great year next year."

Harrington was the Roger Bannister of Irish golf, the man who broke the mental and metaphysical barriers that were a factor in denying successive generations of our finest players the accolade of Major champion.

And, being Harrington, not only did he do it once, which would have been fantastic, but he reeled off three Majors in a golden spell between July 2007 and August 2008.

After that, just as with Bannister following his epic destruction of the four-minute mile barrier at Iffley Road, Oxford in May 1954, the golfing breakthrough sparked a hell-for-leather chase to follow in Harrington's footsteps.

In January 2007, the ledger was in the debit section: 'Ireland - Nil Majors.' By December 2015, the balance sheet reflected a very healthy: 'Ireland - Nine Majors'. Are there more Majors to be won by Irish players? Indubitably.

Is there one more left in Harrington? The odds may be stacked against him but, as he says himself, after 60 holes at St Andrews, he led the Open Championship only for a lost ball to halt his charge.

And don't forget - in 2015 he was a winner on the PGA Tour in the Honda Classic.

He also remains fascinated by golf and if all goes well, Harrington intends to still be hitting balls and practising when he's 80.

It is a universal principle of the game at all levels that good golf is easy in the sense that it generates a positive energy within the player. The play flows from hole to hole. It doesn't have to be spectacular but the stress levels are greatly reduced.

Contrast that with struggling for scores, battling to make the cut. This kind of golf even Pádraig Harrington finds gruelling.

A combination of the toll all that battling was taking, and the need to get a meniscus tear in his right knee repaired, caused Harrington to take caddie Ronan Flood's advice and finish the 2015 season earlier than he originally intended.

This allowed him time for the operation and an eight-week break before resuming at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions to be played in Hawaii from January 7-10.

The Dubliner is well aware that 20 years for any competitive sportsman is a landmark, and it is timely to take an overview of this champion golfer's journey to date.

Phase One

"My first two years I went out on Tour and I thought I'd finish 70th or 80th in the Order of Merit," he explained.

"That was success. That was what I was aiming for, to keep my card. Not to keep my card at 125, because that's very stressful, but be comfortable out on Tour. I was way ahead of expectation. I won after 10 weeks. I finished 11th in the Order of Merit the first year.

"Second year, I finished eighth to prove that the first year wasn't a fluke. That was my sole goal the second year. At the end of two years, I got a bit of a shock. I played the US Open at the Olympic Club in the middle of '98. I chipped and putted as well as I could and I finished 27th."

Phase Two

"I tend to win when I need to win. I won in '96 when I needed to win. Then I started working on stuff. I won again in 2000 to get into the Masters.

"Then I had another bit of a lull. I had a lot of second places. I had just enough wins to keep me going. They came just at the right time to keep things going along nicely.

"The goal when I went to the US was I've got to win an event. Then once I've won an event, I've got to win a Major."

Phase Three

"The biggest thing for me winning the Majors was the US Open at Winged Foot in 2006.

"I had three pars to win that one. Nobody knows that. I had three pars to win there and never played golf like it.

"I'd missed every putt in the last round and still had three pars to win, but when I walked off the golf course, it was the first time I played a Major where I thought, 'I could have won that, totally within myself and not relying on outside agencies or getting lucky'.

"As for 2007-2008, the interesting thing about that is I had less chances to win. Up to 2007, I had something like 29 second places.

"I've had an unbelievable conversion rate. You could say I had a poor conversion rate before 2007, but from 2007 I didn't get myself in contention anywhere near as much, but when I did, I won.

"I did play well in 2009, and in terms of performance, 2009 was my most consistent year."

Phase Four

"The change in 2010 when the grooves came in (change from the so-called 'box' grooves on clubs) was a huge change to me. At the end of 2011 I decided to change coach to Pete Cowen in the middle of the year, at the PGA.

"What happened was that in the Irish Open in Killarney, I finished second.

"2012 was my best year statistically tee to green, but I started putting badly.

"This year has been the first year that has changed. The first note in my notes for the year was, 'I read the greens great' and funny enough by the end of the year, I'd stopped second-guessing my reading.

"Every year is judged, career-wise, looking back, by wins. When did I get a win? I look at it and go, 'Yeah, I won this year'. But for me it was a poor year.

"I love the golf. Yeah, I can get frustrated at the end of a round of golf but I love competing and all that and trying to find a new way. It keeps me motivated."

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