No student of the game has ever spent more time searching for the secret of golf than Padraig Harrington. And what makes the Irishman’s quest all the more frustrating is that he thought that he had it at the end of 2008, the year he added to his 2007 Open victory with another Open and a US PGA championship.
“When I won my three majors,” says the 40-year-old Harrington, “I believed I had the answer. I said to myself, ‘I can do this’, only when I tried to do the same things again, they didn’t work.”
He said long ago that his wife, Caroline, is the only permanent member of ‘Team Harrington’ and, as from last summer, he has been making changes. Bob Torrance, his loyal old coach and the father of Sam Torrance, the 2002 European Ryder Cup captain, has given way to Pete Cowen, while he recently had a week with Dave Alred, the sports skills development guru who has been working with Luke Donald.
“I don’t want to wait till I’ve retired to be able to say that I’ve learned everything. I need to know now," says the Irishman. "I watch other golfers all the time; I read everything there is to read.”
Even the least talented of Harrington’s Pro-Am partners can take a certain pride in the fact that the three-time major winner will almost certainly have learned something from them. Harrington likes to see a playing companion hitting the ball well but, when that does not apply, he revels in analysing why a drive has skidded between the amateur’s legs or screwed past silly-mid-off.
“It’s no good,” he expands, “just learning from yourself and your own mistakes. You have to look further afield.”
Back in 2008, at the US Open at Torrey Pines, Harrington, considered himself blessed in playing two rounds alongside Angel Cabrera when the Argentinean was that week’s defending champion.
“You could see all the time how much the week meant to him,” says Harrington, who won the 2003 Hong Kong Open. “He was trying ever so hard, almost too hard, to make the cut. Then, when it became clear that that was not going to happen, he was still trying to make things respectable. There were a couple of things which I took from those two days. The first, that he did not have to do all these things; the second, that his struggles did not take away from what he had done in 2007.”
Last year, Harrington kept a close eye on Donald as he played his way to the number one spot on both the US and European Tour money lists. He had first noted the improvement in Donald’s play when they partnered each other in the Friday fourballs at the 2010 Ryder Cup. Thereafter, he followed the Englishman’s every upward move.
Since Donald has stayed with the same coach, Pat Goss, since his days at Chicago’s Northwestern University, Harrington came to the conclusion that it had to be Alred who was giving the Englishman the extra edge.
Harrington’s first meeting with Alred took place during the week of last year’s Irish Open. In the knowledge that he was at Dublin's Aviva Stadium –home of Irish rugby – to work with the fly-half Jonathon Sexton, he drove the four hours from Killarney with a view to fixing an appointment. Alred agreed to fit Harrington in at the first opportunity which, even for a major champion, was six months down the line – namely, at this year’s HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship.
Some wondered if Donald might have a problem with sharing Alred but not a bit of it. Donald said that there was no exclusive arrangement in place and that he was happy for him to work with others. “Dave’s said he’ll always put me first – and we’re having a week together as soon as I get back to the States,” explained the world No 1.
Harrington, for his part, cheerfully confirmed that Donald would always be Alred’s first choice – and that he was happy “to play the mistress” in the arrangement.
In rugby, Alred employs a practice routine which sees goal-kickers taking aim on smaller and smaller targets. He has adapted those same methods to golf whilst continuing with his usual ploy of keeping records and charting day-to-day progress. “It’s all about making the practice competitive,” he revealed.
Alred’s way is the reverse of sloppy, with his results mirrored in the very precise arrangements he makes at the outset. In an average golf session, students will embark on a programme in which an exact number of minutes and golf balls are allocated to each drill and discipline.
Nothing over-runs and when, at last year’s Dubai World Championship, the media hung on to Donald for longer than teacher and pupil had anticipated, he cut out a gym session. He did not want his player to miss out on his full quota of rest.
Alred and Harrington worked flat out from the Monday to the Wednesday of the Abu Dhabi week and, when it came to the tournament rounds, where Harrington scored 71, 69. 72 and 73 to finish 35th, Alred was to be seen taking his trademark notes. First and foremost, he was out to analyse why Harrington has spent the last couple of years struggling to take his game from the range to the course.
Alred, at the time of writing, was not prepared to divulge too much about his new pupil: he was just too new. All he would say was that he needed to stop seeing his shots as one or other of good or bad. “I’ve banned him from using those words," he said matter-of-factly. "There are areas of grey ...”
His only other comment was that everyone had told him he could not have hit on two more conscientious and gentlemanly students than Donald and Harrington.
As you would expect, Harrington has made a lot of comparisons between his two ‘major’ years and the more up-to-date seasons. “In 2008”, he says, by way of furnishing an example “I always moved up the field on a Sunday. In 2011, I always slipped back.”
Yet there were some good things to come out of the 2011 season, a year in which he finished in a relatively lowly 67th place in the European Tour's Race to Dubai.
Firstly, he sorted out a recurring neck problem and, secondly, he got to the bottom of a swing problem which was responsible for the odd bad drive under maximum pressure. Essentially, he was dropping the club under the swing plane and leaving it behind. “Even if it’s not fully sorted out, it given me a bit of peace to know what’s happening,” he says.
When you ask Harrington if he expects to win more majors, the answer is ‘yes’, though he wants you to know that it might not happen in a hurry. “You’re never going to get all peak years,” he says.
He points to how no less a player than Nick Faldo won the sixth of his majors in what was his 21st year on tour. Then he mentioned Tiger Woods: “There were years when Tiger won more than one major but there were others when he didn’t win any. It doesn’t get any easier for anyone who wins," maintains Harrington. "There are the expectations of others to deal with, as well as your own.”
In which connection, he recalled how, when he finished 36th at the aforementioned US Open at Torrey Pines, a visitor to his home the following week had seen the result as something of a catastrophe. He wanted to know what on earth had happened. Harrington was moved to look up his statistics in the wake of that comment and, apart from five near misses on the greens, not too much had gone wrong at all.
“There’s no point,” he reminds himself as much as everyone else, “in getting stressed. It all takes time. I’ve got to be patient and then, as happened in 2007 and 2008, a few might come at once.”
Click here to see the published article.