Brian Keogh in Tucson
Padraig Harrington avoided sunstroke, the diamond-backed rattlesnakes and even the nasty, jumping cholla cacti that await the unsuspecting golfer in the Sonoran Desert that plays host to this week’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
But he still got badly stung, not so much by Pat Perez, but by his own failure to separate his technical thoughts from that golfing rule of natural selection: He who gets his ball in the hole first, wins.
A peek at Harrington’s early season results reveals a wilderness as dry and inhospitable as this week’s desert venue. But the reasons behind the reigning Open and US PGA champion’s miserable recent run are simple enough and the solution will come in the form of an unscheduled, one-off trip to Miami next month to take on the Doral’s famed Blue Monster course in the WGC-CA Championship.
The move has yet to be officially confirmed by Harrington’s management team, but his lack of sharpness in Tucson and successive missed cuts at Pebble Beach and Riviera, have left him woefully short of match practice.
As he said when he trudged off the 18th at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club on Wednesday night: “I am right back on track with my game. But it is tough in match play and I would like to have played some more golf because I think my game is right there.”
The Open and US PGA champion had planned to return to action in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill from March 26-29 and then play the Shell Houston Open before heading to Augusta, where he will be bidding to become just the third player in history to win three major championships in a row.
Yet while his two-events-before-a-major plan remains in place, Harrington feels he can benefit hugely from playing four rounds in a no-cut event at Doral from March 12-15, rather than waiting until Bay Hill on March 26 to see how his game is shaping up.
He confessed in Tucson that he has been distracted by technical thoughts in recent weeks and spent so much time making running repairs to his game after his winter break that he has been unable to get into tournament mode and concentrate simply on scoring.
Three days alongside his mental coach Dr Bob Rotella, who he had not seen since his third major victory in the US PGA at Oakland Hills last August, helped him banish the technical thoughts that have cluttered his mind in recent weeks.
But he failed to live up to his match play creed of getting the ball in the hole and not giving up on any holes. Two front nine errors left him one down after six holes to Perez when he should have been one up and while he got back to all square.
A couple of Perez birdies left him struggling and after coming back to trail by one hole with one to play, he missed a ten-footer at the last to take the match down the 19th.
Had he snuck through the first round, Harrington might well have survived for a few more days after clarifying his thought processes under Rotella’s instruction.
“I have been practising too much and not concentrating on the right areas to be competitive,” Harrington revealed. “Pretty much the same as every year since I turned professional.
“It was great to see Bob Rotella and we had a great chat over breakfast on Monday morning. We worked on the range on the usual stuff, getting into my target and going through my routines. It was hard to believe how tough it was for me to actually hit one shot without thinking about some part of my swing or stance or set up.
“I must have hit about thirty shots before I decided to just not worry about the outcome and hit a shot. This was the first shot I have played this year where I wasn’t thinking about something in my swing.”
Defeat left him facing a four week lay-off to think about his game and while adding Doral to his schedule is not ideal, it will give him a chance to get his season back on track before it’s too late.
Brian Keogh in Tucson