Harrington - the Howard Hughes of golf

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Padraig Harrington is not eccentric or superstitious but as the clock ticks down to his bid for a hat-trick of Open titles at Turnberry he could still be classed as the Howard Hughes of golf.

On the face of it there is little in common between the always approachable Dubliner and the reclusive Texas billionaire who spent the last 20 years of his life living in hotels from Beverly Hills and Las Vegas to the Bahamas.

Howard Hughes wanted to be the best golfer in the worldWhile Hughes - a two handicapper - suffered terribly from obsessive-compulsive disorder and developed a mortal fear of germs in his final years, Harrington is only obsessive about getting better at golf. It’s not bugs that bother him but bogeys.

Hughes bought TV stations so he could set the late night movie schedule. For decades, his dinner order was the same: a steak, a baked potato and 12 green peas. “Oversize” peas were sent back to the cook.

Harrington’s been known to change hotels because the curtains in his room weren’t heavy enough to chip into at night. His wedges must always have razor sharp grooves. His grips must always go on at a certain angle.

Yet as he battles to emerge from the biggest results slump of his professional career, his decision to improve his swing after winning three majors in 13 months has been called the biggest eccentricity of all.

Unlike the unfortunate Hughes, there is method to Harrington’s madness. And that begs the question: Are all great sportsmen a breed apart? Is Harrington that different to us mere mortals?

Dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, Harrington stared at the crumbs of scone on his plate as he sat at his kitchen table and contemplated his answer.

“Yes,” he said. “Very complicated. Very complicated into what is happening what is going on. Yeah. Trying to understand the whole process so that I can control it.

“I probably wouldn’t be able to accept performing without knowing why. Even if I was performing, I don’t think I would enjoy winning if I didn’t know why I was winning.

“I think the ultimate satisfaction of winning is understanding how I got there. And I pay very little respect - unfortunately, while I admire it - I pay very little respect to somebody who wins without knowing why.”

That’s where Hughes and Harrington cross paths - wanting to know why things work so they can fix them when they go wrong or make them work better.

When he was just 11 years old, Hughes persuaded his father to buy him a luxury sports car so that he could take it apart and put it back together again. It only took him a month but it’s taking Harrington only slightly longer to do the same thing with his golf swing.

Asked before the Irish Open why he would tinker with a method that had brought him such amazing success over the past two years, he said: “I don’t want to play like I played last year. I want to play better than that… If you try and stay constant, you’re on a slippery slope to retirement.”

What makes Harrington special is that he is prepared to get worse before he gets better. And he’s not afraid of hard work.

He said: “I have very little time for wasted talent and very little time for the talent that has no understanding of why they do what they do. If somebody was the best at something in the world and they couldn’t tell me why they were there - and I mean detail of why there were there - I wouldn’t be interested.

“I am not different. There are plenty of people like me. But that’s my make up.”

Challenged that there were not “plenty” of great sportsmen, Harrington gave an answer that explains exactly why he IS special.

He said: “It is only because I am prepared to go the extra mile. But there are plenty of people like me. I am the sort of person that not alone do I want to do it and be successful at doing it, I want to understand it.

“If I was a tech-nerd, I would be the guy who pulls apart a computer to see how it works. Whereas most people are quite happy that it works.

“I have no interest in doing that to my computer. I am quite happy that when I push the button it happens. Whereas with my golf game, I want to pull it apart and see what it does.

“When Howard Hughes was a kid, he bought a Model-T Ford or a Mercedes and wanted to pull it apart. That’s me with my golf game.”

Is it a bit like the pool player who smashes the ball aimlessly into the pack and happens to pot four or five balls?

Harrington replied: “No. No. It’s actually the opposite. It would be the guy who gets in on the pool table and he has got the perfect cueing action and clears everything up but he has no understanding of what he is doing.”

Jose Mourinho called himself the Special One, but Harrington prefers to think of himself as more Henrik Larsson than Diego Maradona, more Bernhard Langer than John Daly.

Warming to the theme, Harrington explained: “This is why I always move to follow the likes of Langer. Three times (he had) the yips! That’s talent. That’s ultimate talent. Three times he had the yips but he was able overcome it and not just to overcome it, but become a fantastic putter, a great putter. That’s incredible talent.

“Even the most admired soccer player, someone like Henrik Larsson. He knew what he was doing and I have met him through the boys from Celtic. That’s what I admire. I admire people who have worked to get where they are. And the influence he would have on the people around him seeing the good habits.”

Harrington doesn’t know if he has a masochistic streak or not - he fears he might - but he’s certainly not going to the Open to prove the critics wrong or to salvage some pride.

He said: “I am not hurt in at all in my pride, actually. I’m incredibly optimistic and keen about my game at the moment. I’m just so looking forward to getting out there and working and playing. I understand the highs and lows of the game. I accept the highs and lows of the game. I would prefer to have it that way.

“Even though I’ve practiced to have consistency, I certainly wouldn’t want consistency without the highs. If that means there are going to be lows, so be it.”

Solving the double sided, 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle has a massive fascination for Harrington. But he’s also aware of the part that lady luck can play in the game.

He’s got a keen interest in odds and betting and loves nothing better than a game of cards, just like his close pal JP McManus.

Sensing his game is about to come good in the nick of time, he said: “You can’t believe how close it is. What I love about this game how bad it can look and yet how close it is.

“It’s amazing when you are on a bad run. It’s like getting cards in a game of poker. When you get on a bad run, even though it’s a game of chance, you can’t seem to pull a good hand. When you are on a bad run it stays a bad run. Yet when you get onto a good run, everything seems to go for you.”

Turnberry will be a beast this year, a course for a player who’s mentally stronger than the rest.

If the cards fall right, Harrington the grinder knows he can pull off the hat-trick.

He said: “I can win on any golf course. There is no golf course I can’t win on, that’s for sure. If I get my attitude right, I can do it.”