Padraig Harrington is short a few bob - purely on the money list, of course. But that’s not his biggest headache. He’s also been three-putting a few times too many this year too, but that’s not his main problem either.
What’s really eating the world No 80 is not the fact that he’s one big win away from getting back into the world’s top 50 or that he’ll probably need to make €55,000 in his next event to make sure he gets to tee it up in the European Tour’s season-ending Dubai World Championship but the fact that his once iron-clad mental game is no longer functioning efficiently. As he says himself, he’s lost “faith,” in that side of his game.
Harrington’s ability to put aside the swing glitches and get those “scary eyes” popping when he’s coming down the stretch has been the hallmark of a career that has brought him three major wins to date.
His mental game is not “stale” as such but it has certainly lost what he described yesterday as its “lustre” and he’s working hard to find a way of putting a shine on it again.
“Establishing why the performances haven’t been as good over the last few years ultimately it comes down to the mental game not working quite as well,” Harrington said on his return from Malaysia, where a share of third place in the Iskandar Johor Open was not quite enough to get him into the top-60 in the money list and earn him his ticket to the season-ending party in Dubai.
Essentially, he must go to Hong Kong next week and finish in the top half dozen if he is to extend a disappointing season by another week. In the meantime, he has plenty of food for thought.
“Why the mental game isn’t working quite as well is the bit you have to sort out and it comes down to pushing too hard and trying too hard and that is it,” he explained. “I am just a little bit stale or I’ve lost a little bit of lustre or faith in that side of my game because of the fact that I put some much importance on it.”
Having jettisoned one Bob earlier this year - his swing coach Bob Torrance - don’t expect Harrington to ditch the other Bob in his entourage - his mental coach Dr Bob Rotella - any time soon.
“I’ve been in touch with him today already,” Harrington said. “I very much work on the mental side and if anything, I work on it too hard. I don’t think stale is quite the word to use but it hasn’t had the same effect over the last couple of years.”
If Joseph Heller were alive, the author of Catch 22 would probably do a good job on Harrington’s biography.
Harrington is trying to hard and the only solution is to try harder to try less. Got that Yossarian?
Perfectly aware of the conundrum, Harrington said: “It is Catch-22. Absolutely. Trying to try less is a difficult concept and it is not the one that got me where I am in golf but it is the one I have got to learn.”
Harrington knows Rotella’s mantras so well he has summarised the American mental coach’s book into notebooks of bullet points a hundred times.
While his new swing coach Pete Cowen claims that Harrington has, by his own admission, neglected his short game while searching for his long game and become “almost non-competitive”, the man himself does not agree. He does not agree at all.
“That’s been brought up because Peter mentioned it and people have latched on to it,” Harrington said. “But no, I have gone through the stats in detail…. My short game has been good. Okay, I am going to pick out a general thing. My putting probably wasn’t as good at times this year and I have certainly had more three putts.
“Why? It is just the nature of the beast at times. It is hard to look at stats individually. You can get anything you want out of stats. All I know is that every single performance in 2008, on Sunday in the US I improved my position. In close to every single (Sunday) performance this year or for the last 18 months, I have disimproved there.”
Putting his finger on what this has been happening is simple for Harrington. It’s called high expectations, pressure to perform. The tyranny of results.
“It is pretty straightforward. It is not that there is any particular weakness, it is just at time I have tried to hard, essentially looking for results,” he explained. “Expectations are high and it is always hard when expectations are high. It is always harder than when you are below the radar and nobody is expecting much.”
Nearly 12 months ago, Harrington reeled off a long, laundry list of things he had changed in his game and spent the next few months listening to people telling him he was crazy. He almost started to believe they were right until he realised that change has been a way of life for him. The changes weren’t the problem at all.
“There is no doubt there was a period there when I was listening to so many people telling me about it (the changes) that in some ways I started to believe it. It is only in the last couple of months, when I started to look back at the last couple of years, the only thing that didn’t change is the fact that I am always changing.
“The next thing I realise is that the one thing I have done is prepare properly for pretty much every tournament I have played in the last two years. So it is not like I am neglecting my short game or my long game or my mental game.
“It’s not coming from changes because I have always been changing so it really is establishing why the performances haven’t been as good and ultimately it comes down to the mental game not working quite as well.
“Why the mental game isn’t working quite as well is the bit you have to sort out and it comes down to pushing too hard and trying too hard and that is it. Having the ability to hit the heights and knowing how to do it only puts more pressure on you to do it. I am well aware that if I get my mental game right for a tournament, I can win that tournament. So that puts a lot of expectation and pressure on getting my mental game right away and in some ways I have put too much pressure on it and put too much weight on it, which makes it harder to do.”
Harrington is never short of words of advice from friends and colleagues and thanks to Sligo man Jude O’Reilly, former caddie to Shigeki Maruyama and official stand-in for Fanny Sunesson on Henrik Stenson’s bag, he got a fresh perspective on the mental game in Singapore two weeks ago.
O’Reilly has been collaborating with performance coach Jim Murphy, author of the New York Times best-seller “Inner Excellence: Achieve Extraordinary Business Success through Mental Toughness”. He’s helping Murphy, a former professional baseball player, promote the “The Inner Excellence High Performance System for Golfers.”
Harrington had read Murphy’s book and confessed that meeting him face to face helped him line up a few mental ducks in Johor last week.
“It definitely helped,” he insists. “When I read Jimmy’s book, I would have agreed with everything in it. But talking about it with someone face to face emphasised some things and brought home that I might have been overdoing it in the mental department.
“Trying to be patient and waiting for it to happen sounds easy. But if it was easy to do, everybody would be doing it and there would be no competitive advantage in it.”
Harrington says that he has delved deeper into the mental game since he gained increased confidence in his long game and discovered that it is not as strong as he thought it was.
“I suppose now that I have more peace of mind in how I am playing, it is showing up the inefficiencies in my mental game over the last couple of years,” he explained. “I have found what I am looking for in my golf swing but I am working very hard to find a good balance in my mental game. Working on my long game over the last couple of years, led me to believe that when I didn’t perform, it was my long game that wasn’t performing. In reality, it was the bit of staleness in the mental side that put too much pressure on that part of my game.”
He’s no longer searching for the Holy Grail on the range but inside his own head. What happens now is anyone’s guess but if Harrington can find a way to freshen up his mental game, life really might start after 40 for (arguably) the most successful European golfer of the last 20 years.