Judging Pádraig Harrington by normal standards makes little sense. These guys are different, which is why he will hit a few balls after dinner today "to relax” while the rest of us are sleeping off the Christmas pudding in front of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
That should come as no surprise given that the general population considers him an eccentric who’s ended up blinding himself by science. Chats with acquaintances unconnected with the golf business described his recent Late Late Show interview with Ryan Tubridy as “sad”.
Their reaction was understandable considering he was trying to explain why he was no longer the same player who won his third major in the space of 13 months in August 2008.
“I have changed as a person,” a jaded and almost cynical-sounding Harrington told Tubridy in October. “I have more experience and with that comes a lot of confidence. But I have lost the fear and the intensity because I know what is going to happen. There is no mystery about my game, no innocence about my game. I have seen it all before sort of thing.
“I show all the symptoms of somebody who is burnt out and I have to figure out a way of managing that - the new Pádraig Harrington, rather than the old one.
“Burnt out sounds strong, but I know Jack Nicklaus said his career would come to an end when he stopped having butterflies in the morning. On a Thursday morning I am not as excited or as scared as I was before. Why? Because I have done it before. I have seen it all before. I am a cynical person…. it comes with experience.
“At 42 years of age, I am a different person that I was when I was 24. There is a sense of completion when you have won majors. My destiny doesn’t depend on me turning around and playing well tomorrow. I feel I have already done what I needed to do in the game of golf and from now on is a bonus.
“I definitely peaked in 2007 and 2008 but the key for me is that I definitely feel I can peak again. But I have to do it in a different way. There isn’t the same innocence in me.”
Tubridy expressed the feeling that this was “sad”.
“It’s not [sad]. It is what it is. I would love to be a young, naive kid going out there with the excitement that the tour brings but that’s not the way it is.”
In case you missed it, Harrington has won just one 72-hole event since 2008 - the 2010 Iskandar Johor Open on the Asian Tour. He’s fallen from a career high of third in the world in August 2008 (when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were the only men ahead of him) to 131st at the end of this year.
As things stand, he is not in the Masters or the US Open or any of the World Golf Championships for 2014. Without a big win, his chances of making the Ryder Cup team are nil.
All this can change with a tournament victory — preferably a US PGA Tour victory — as Harrington knows all too well.
After all, current world No 3 Henrik Stenson was 171st in the world just 19 months ago and is now one of the hottest golfers on the planet.
Yeah, but his putting’s gone, I hear you say. His head is gone. There’s no doubt that his putting is a huge problem — a problem that came to a head in 2012 with a case of the yips and lingered in 2013 despite some encouraging signs at the end of the season.
What’s crystal clear is that despite what he might have appeared to have said on the Late Late Show, he hasn’t thrown in the towel. Far from it.
"I'm not retiring, no."
While he is indeed the man who has done it all, he’s merely stating a fact rather than making an excuse for his current malaise.
“That’s the reality,” he said in a recent, brief chat. “This is the point. I can’t change who I am. The person I am is the guy who has won majors. I have exceeded everything I could ever have dreamed of achieving in golf. So what can I do? That’s who I am. You can’t take my majors away from me.
"Yes, I have far exceeded what I thought I would do in golf. I am motivated to go on and do more. But the person I am is the guy who has done this. And because I have done it, I don’t have the feelings of anticipation and the butterflies. I don’t walk on to a range and see a young kid that I would have seen 15 years ago and gone, ‘How I am I going to be able to beat this guy? He is so good.’
“Now I look at him and go, ‘Yeah, the tour will sort him out’ sort of thing. I’ve seen so many of them come and go. Yeah, I want to win more majors. If I didn’t win any more majors, I still won three majors. I am just making a statement. I am still motivated to win more and win more majors.”
Far from losing desire, Harrington says his problem is just the opposite.
“My problem is that I still work too hard, that’s the hardest thing for me. I am still struggling with overworking, over practicing, over training. When it comes to me, the problem is that I am still working harder than ever.”
Ask him about his hopes for 2014 after the disaster that was 2013 and you can almost see him throw his eyes to heaven down the phone line.
“Gee whizz. Not much has to happen for things to go better than 2013,” he says.
But unlike the racing correspondent who blamed a string of losing tips on what he considered to be the undeniable truth that “horses are only human,” Harrington has no wallow in self-pity or concede that he's had black, black days.
If he got a bit down this year, or last year, he’s not admitting it.
“I am not that sort of person to get down,” he insists. “Look, I work at making sure I don’t. It’s not productive to get down on yourself, so you don’t.”
Few golfers think as deeply about the game as Harrington, which might not always be a good thing. He analyses everything, so determined is he to find out why this or that has gone wrong. As he once said, he can understand why a young Howard Hughes took an expensive car to pieces and put it back together again.
Comparing yourself to Hughes is not a great image move as it conjures up visions of the nutty, billionaire recluse.
Whatever about that, it’s clear that Harrington has undergone a profound change in the way he plays the game. Yes, the putting woes have exacerbated his fall but there’s more to it than that.
I suggest jocosely at the 2012 Irish Open that he was becoming more like Colin Montgomerie than his old self. It was a week when played well enough to win but holed nothing and simply couldn't compete with Jamie Donaldson.
As he once said: "Guys who hit greens in reg don't win tournaments."
Still, he recognises that the new Harrington has to come to terms with the same problems Monty faced in his hey-day
“Yeah, there is no doubt there is much more of that,” he says of the frustration of two-putting from 25 feet. “There are much more of those putts and less momentum being gained by chipping and putting. That’s what were talking about when we talk about me not being the same person. I play a slightly different game. I am more understanding and not as erratic.
"There were many years when I’d have woken up and gone to the golf course fearing the worst. Nowadays I am not searching for my golf swing, not out there every day trying to find something. I am hitting the ball plenty good enough. I am trying to find what I used to be.”
Harrington was always at his best when he simply went out and played to score. As Rory McIlroy put it recently, it doesn’t always have to be pretty. Now 42, the Dubliner is no longer that swashbuckling character who played golf like a cross between Harry Houdini and Seve. His problem is coming to terms with the new Harrington. Like an old gunfighter, who knows all the tricks but has lost his speed, he has to find a new way to survive and score.
“Do I wish I was like I was before? It is not a question of wishing. Nobody can have it. It’s like somebody saying, I’d take three pars to finish. I am sorry to say that at no time in the game of golf do you get offered three pars. Why would you even bother going down that road? You are what you are at that time and it is not for lack of practice on my short game, that’s for sure.”
He never stops searching for innovative ways to overcome his problems. Like Wile E. Coyote, he's prepared to get hit over the head with an anvil more often than not.
Leaving aside the mid-season belly putter move, playing with spectacles early in the season turned out to be one of his less inspired decisions.
Quickly recapping 2013, he says: “I clearly had a number of issues last year - I went from being the best wedge player on tour to abominable because of a failed experiment with glasses.
"I broke my driver, which strapped me for another couple of months. And after having the yips the year before on the greens, last year I wasn’t as bad but I didn’t get a good return on the greens.
"So clearly that wasn’t good. I obviously don’t chip as well now as I chipped when I had the box grooves. So all those elements are affecting my scoring. I hit the golf ball far better… but…”
His voice trails off as he attempts to explain why he is a better player than ever and yet scoring worse than at any time in a professional career that that is about to enter its 19th year.
It all goes back, not so much to his decision to invest his time in a greater understanding of biomechanics, much to the chagrin of his ex-coach Bob Torrance, but to the ban on box grooves that came into effect in January 2010.
Not only has the ban affected his play from the rough, he’s no longer as deadly around the greens though he still suspects that may have more to do with his putting than his short game.
“It is not even that [getting less traction around the greens]. I am not getting a consistent ball flight off the new grooves. Some come out low with spin when I make a really good contact. But I am not getting the flight I had when I had the grooves.
“I’ve looked at it closely and did some testing that might help down the road and I am hoping to find some consistency in that. Then again, it might be more putting than chipping. Who knows.”
Who knows? That's not a phrase we normally associate with Harrington. What he does know is that something has to give.
He’s hoping, for instance, that opting for wedges with more bounce and a changing to a slightly softer golf ball will make a difference when he returns to action at the Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa in little more than a fortnight.
“The wedges will have more bounce on them, which is what was recommended for me, to get the ball to come out that bit lower to control my ball flight. That should hopefully make a bit of a difference. I have tested Titleist golf balls and essentially gone to the one with a cover that would be more akin to what I would have been using in 2007 - overall a little bit softer. So that will help chipping and pitching wise.”
And the putting?
“I haven’t had the yips this year. One or two putts that’s all. A lot of it came down to indecision in reading the greens. It all came from lack of preparation and the lack of preparation came from indecision in my reading of the greens. I have been quite comfortable on the greens — of late. I am not saying I am getting the results but technically the stroke is better than ever so it is a question of how well I trust my reading of the greens.”
It’s crucial for his hopes of returning to the world elite that Harrington plays well early in 2014.
“I am struggling to keep up my numbers both in the States and Europe and it would be a mammoth task to make it into the Ryder Cup team,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that I can’t go out and play great golf.
“Because I am not in the world events, I may have to play more events. The only way to avoid doing that is to play early on and play well. So I am have decided more or less what I am going to play through May - though that could change depending on how I play.
“I am enough of a realist to understand that it will all happen in the first month or two, which will make my life easier. So I am playing the Volvo Champions, Abu Dhabi, Phoenix, AT&T and LA. I played exactly those five last year. I’ll also play Honda and Transitions (now Valspar). That’s not ideal as there is a week between them for Doral, but the only thing is that I have had good runs on both those golf courses so I am not unhappy to be playing those events.”
A big win would solve all his problems and open many doors.
“I’m looking for a win, absolutely, but I have to have a win in the right tournament. I don’t think a win in either of the two European Tour events will get me into the Masters. I will have to win in the States to get into the Masters or maybe a couple of good performances could get me into the world events and I can move back up onto the top 50.”
It’s all ifs and buts right now and as Harrington knows better than anyone, clarity on the greens is the key to it all. Or some of that old black magic.
Padraig Harrington's early season schedule
- Jan 9 - 12 Volvo Golf Champions, Durban Country Club, South Africa
- Jan 16 - 19 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
- Jan 30 - Feb 2 Waste Management Phoenix Open, Scottsdale, AZ
- Feb 6 - 9 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Pebble Beach Golf Links, CA
- Feb 13 - 16 Northern Trust Open, Riviera CC, Los Angeles, CA
- Feb 27 - Mar 2 The Honda Classic, PGA National (Champion) Palm Beach Gardens, FL
- Mar 13 - 16 Valspar Championship, Innisbrook Resort - Copperhead, Palm Harbor, FL