How Pádraig Harrington remains "sane"

Pádraig Harrington is playing more golf than ever in the build up to the Masters. Pictured here in Abu Dhabi earlier this season by Fran Caffrey/www.golffile.iePádraig Harrington insists it’s his desire to keep moving forward that’s inspiring his globetrotting preparations for the Masters.

In another insightful pre-tournament press conference, the 41-year old Dubliner sat down at Riviera Country Club ahead of this week’s Northern Trust Open and explained how he manages to keep “sane” and avoid the mental wear and tear that destroys players young and old. It’s simply what he does and defines who he is.

Having made all the mistakes himself, Harrington now sits back, observes the madness and makes sure he’s doing all he can to keep pace with the young guns and make sure he remains motivated.

Unlike other veterans, and some rookies, he refuses to let it the mental grind get to him. No matter how frazzled he can get at times, he will not be mentally minced if he can help it.

As Chris Dufresne eloquently put it in today’s Los Angeles Times: “Harrington watches up-and-comers like an old man sitting on a porch.”

“It’s great,” Harrington said.  “I’m on the inside looking at this and it keeps me sane.”

Sane or not, Harrington will have played as many as 10 tournaments before Augusta - a personal record. This is his fifth start of the year and his third of a four-in-a-row run. When he drives up Magnolia Lane in April, he will have played more competitive tournaments in the build up than ever.*

Either he’s got the enthusiasm of a rookie or like some species of shark, he must keep swimming or drown. The truth lies somewhere in between.

Whatever about his financial incentives for playing a couple of events in Asia before returning to the US for his final Masters warm up at the Texas Valero Open, it’s his willingness to learn, improve and adapt that keeps him out of the straitjacket.

There is some method in his madness though. By adding the Waste Management Open in Phoenix to his schedule two weeks ago he was trying to give himself the best chance of remaining in the Top 50 in the world who qualify for the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral from March 7-10.

“As I’m kind of on the cusp of Top‑50 in the world; I’m not in Doral,” said the current world No 48 who plans to play in Thailand and Malaysia next month before returning to the US with a debut appearance in the Texas Valero Open the week before the Masters.

“I added a couple of tournaments just to give myself more of a chance.  Certainly added Phoenix to give myself a chance to stay in the Top‑50.

“I wouldn’t normally play four (in a row), but when the circumstances dictate a need, you’ll do whatever it takes.  

“My first year on Tour, I did ten in a row, and it was great.  I think I won; I won on my 10th event.  There you go.”

Harrington must be in the Top 50 after the Match Play (February 24) or the Honda Classic (March 3) to book his ticket to Doral.

He’s certainly got plenty to keep him busy between now and then.

Having putted well in his first two starts of the year in South Africa and Abu Dhabi, he lost his confidence on the greens in the final round in Phoenix and then had 36 putts in his third round in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am last Saturday to miss the cut.

He claimed it was the first time he’d ever had 36 putts in his professional career but whatever about the accuracy of that statement, he pointed the finger of blame at his wedge play.

“It’s very difficult from the conditions I’m coming from, it’s very difficult to get good wedge play during the winter,” he said. “The turf is soft and the weather is not conducive; you’re probably hitting the ball 20, 30 percent less distance‑wise. That’s probably the hardest for me, getting dialed in on the wedge numbers and the routines.”

Harrington knows that the moment he loses a smidgen of interest in the game, he will be on the slippery slope to retirement. And it’s that boyish enthusiasm to change and experiment that keeps him young.

Asked if he sensed “a window closing physically and mentally” as he starts his 18 season on tour, Harrington said: “How long do I think that can go on?  My ego says forever.  (Laughter) At this very moment, that’s how I believe.  You’re out here on TOUR and there’s lots of young guys and you’ve got to compete with them.  You know, I’m happy that I can do that.  I’ll take them on at whatever task you want, I’m ready for it.

“So it’s a state of mind and the rookies definitely keep you young, no doubt about it.  I see my best years ahead of me.  I don’t look back and think this is in any shape or form, I don’t feel like I’m on the downward track.  I still feel like I’m moving up and as I said, physically I’m getting better and better.  “So no real issues there, and I’m motivated.  That’s probably the most important thing.  It’s much more to do with motivation than anything else, and I’m motivated.”

Harrington eventually learned that playing 10 events in a row and closing the range every night was not the best way of going about his business.

Pádraig Harrington speaks to the media after a long day at the golf course in Los Angeles on Monday.And that’s why he’s happy to be a people watcher on tour.

“Fascinated by them,” he said when asked about the tour’s young guns.  “Fascinated by golf in general… a few years into my career, you’d be looking at these guys and be wondering how you can compete, because there are bigger athletes coming out now and they crunch the golf ball and they all swing so well and they all hit the ball so well and it’s so easy to get drawn in.

“I’ve seen that and I’ve lectured pros my age or slightly older than me, who get into the realm, ‘Oh, I can’t compete.’  Because it’s very easy to look at them and say, wow, there’s such a bunch of these guys.

“But then after a while, you kind of get through that phase and you go, wow, there’s another good young kid and the TOUR is just going to eat him up, just going to eat that guy up; and as good as he is, after a while, he’s going to have the same fears that the rest of us have out here and he’s going to have to deal with this and he’s going to have to deal with missing missed cuts, when every week he turned up in college, he nearly won the tournament.  Now, every second week, he’s missing a cut, and he could still be playing good golf and missing the cut; how he’s going to deal with that.  

“You realize with experience that TOUR life is far, far, far more than the ability to hit a golf ball.  It’s so much more about managing your time out here and keeping perspective on the game.  There’s so many elements to it that it is fascinating seeing good players coming out here, and the TOUR, the life on the TOUR, because it is tough out here.  There’s 156 guys most weeks and we’re all fighting it out, and you know, we really‑‑ you can be as good as anything, but in the end of the day, we only care about the scores at the end of the week.  It’s so easy to get lost.

“It’s probably the most interesting thing out here is watching guys who are playing well, and wondering why they are playing well; and watching good players not playing well and then watching these great kids coming out and wondering, are they going to be great; are they going to get through that barrier.  Because it’s not a physical barrier, nothing to do with that.  It’s completely mental at the end of the day.

“Thankfully for somebody like me, there’s many a great player out there who just doesn’t like the professional lifestyle, doesn’t like the travel.  They get frustrated and bogged down with that, and that takes out a lot of players.
 
“Professional golf, it’s interesting, and there’s a lot of different pieces in the dynamic that make up a successful TOUR player.  And even then more, in a player who is having a run, who is successful and having  a bumper season and peaks and like myself in 2007, 2008, where I win three majors, it’s fascinating watching everybody going through the highs and lows of TOUR life and just trying to, for me, it’s just trying to pigeon hole everybody and say, right, I put him in that category there, and I can see him step out of it and will he go back to it; will he reset to the person he believes he is or will he sustain this run of peak golf.

“It’s great.  I’m on the inside looking at this and it keeps me sane.  As I said, as a rookie, he kept the blinkers on myself.  For two years, I don’t think I ever once looked around myself.  I just ran.  For two years, I basically just ran with the ball and never, ever questioned it.

“For the next ten years, I looked around and questioned everything.  It’s only now, a little later on, that I look at it, I question it, but I’m able to compartmentalise it and say, okay, yeah, he’s in there, that’s the level he’s at, yes he’s playing great.  Yes, it’s fascinating, the whole scheme of things.

“A huge amount comes down to exactly what the player believes his position is determines massively how he plays golf over the years, and everybody has a little ego inside them and it’s either knocking them back or lifting them up, whatever it is.  But they have something inside them that says that they believe that they are this type of player.  It’s amazing, it’s very hard to get away from it.”

Harrington adheres to the ancient Greek principle, “Know thyself”, to avoid burnout.

He still makes mistakes but he knows all the tricks, such as the best way to combat jet-lag.

Hitting the gym works a treat, for example. But watching TV at three in the morning is a no-no.

“And no matter if you wake up in the middle of the night at 3 o’clock in the morning, you’re wide awake, do not put on the television.  That is the golden rule. Just lie there, look at the four walls, but the minute you put on the television, that’s it.  You ain’t ever getting back to sleep.”

Harrington goes off with Stephen Ames and Angel Cabrera from the first at 8.43pm Irish time with Graeme McDowell alongside Luke Donald and Adam Scott, also starting from the first, at 8.01 pm.

* Harrington’s build up to the Masters and his finishing position since his debut (corrected):

2000 (7 events/T19)

2001 (5/T27)

2002 (5/T5)

2003 (6/CUT)

2004 (5/T13)

2005 (5/CUT)

2006 (6/T27)

2007 (7/T7)

2008 (7/T5)

2009 (8/T35)

2010 (7/CUT)

2011 (8/CUT)

2012 (7/T8)