A lot can happen in five years. If you’re Padraig Harrington, it’s been five years of disappointments and frustrations, leading to the conclusion that not only is trying recreate the magic formula an object in futility, the formula only worked for a person who no longer exists. Even the opposition has changed.
Time moves on, yet the champion remains trapped by his own success, constantly judged by his greatest ever performances both by himself and those around him. It’s like locked-in syndrome for golfers where the only people who really care about your troubles are your wife and, if you are lucky, your caddie.
Little wonder Harrington has decided to take a more laid back attitude in the US PGA this week. He no longer demands total excellence, having finally realised that it only leads to frustration. Accepting that your average game is something of value has been key but it’s taken time to come to the conclusion that lowering expectations might be an avenue worth exploring.
Call it evolution. As FC Barcelona discovered against Bayern Munich in last year’s Champions League semi-finals, Darwin’s theories also apply to sport. Evolve or die.
“Of course it gets more difficult but you only have to go look at all the successful teams,” Harrington says of his battle to move on from his feat of winning three majors in 13 months. “Look at soccer. Two years ago, nobody ever thought Barcelona would get beaten again.
“Theirs was the way to play football, the perfect style. All of a sudden Bayern Munich come along and beat them 7-0 over two games. Nothing is permanent. You can try and do it the same way every day but, eventually, the same way won’t be good enough anymore. Everything and everybody else evolves.”
Harrington has been accused of changing everything in his game once he won those majors and yet through all the minor and major changes, his ultimate goal was to recreate the mental state that made those wins at Carnoustie, Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills possible in the first place.
The Dubliner has been a master at accepting the twin imposters of success and failure “and how similar they are.”
Knowing what worked and trying to recreate it sounds like a foolproof theory. But with Harrington, it hasn’t been that simple.
“I’ve walked away from bad results elated about my game. Like, I walked away from the US Open at Winged Foot unbelievably confident about my game. Whereas I’ve had some good performances where I’ve walked away and it could be shattering.”
Putting things into some kind of perspective - however warped it might seem to the outside world - has been a huge strength of Harrington’s. Realising he just had to raise his game to a level whereby is average golf would be good enough to put himself in position to win majors was the first step.
Winning those majors required guts and some strokes of genius. But the real challenge has been maintaining that winning formula or certainly recreating it so that it remains as potent as the original formula that worked so well.
Harrington has not managed to pull it off, because the theory in itself is flawed.
Knowing you are capable of great things is wonderful. Trying to do what you did before is problem.
“That’s actually what goes wrong because you try and do more of what got you there,” he says. “Any guy who has won a single Major or two … think about it, in the modern game, Phil has won five, Tiger’s won 14, Ernie’s won four, I’ve won three and Vijay has won three.
“You could look at Vijay, he won 10 tournament one year, why isn’t he winning five Majors. He’s trying to do the same things he did when he won those tournaments.”
Does Harrington regret any of the decisions he’s made since his US PGA win at Oakland Hills, five years ago?
“No, I’ve no regret over any decision I’ve made or anything I did. I don’t second guess myself. For sure, I definitely tried too hard with my mental game because that made the difference to me winning. I definitely made it harder on myself by putting more pressure on myself to do it right.
“I don’t have any regret about it but there’s no doubt that trying to perfect my mental game, because it was so important to the way I played, it made it harder. That’s where I went wrong but I don’t regret it because it was normal.
“Knowing what was perfect, I’ve seen this in a lot of players who’ve won big tournaments relative to themselves, they try to recreate the formula that worked.”
What follows is frustration.
“I was losing my tolerance of not getting it right because I knew what right was and I knew what it ends up with. It’s the same as everybody else who wins Major tournaments. A lot of them get caught up in their physical game, their swing or whatever. Because they know what good is, they lose patience with average.
“I’ve only just realised it (couple of months ago) and it’s certainly made a significant difference to me. I’d see it in my game but more in my attitude, my intensity. I’m a lot more patient with it, a lot more tolerant. I’m more like me.
“I think it would be [since] the US Open. It was a combination of Bob [Rotella] and a few other things.”
Harrington’s frustration on the course was affecting his game but he now believes his more laid-back, accepting attitude is paying dividends.
If only he could make some birdies and gain some momentum.
After all, he’s outside the Top 50 in the world and wants to play in the Ryder Cup again - and next year’s Masters, for which he is not exempt. Time is pressing. And of course, he wants to win more majors.
“I know I need to get into the world top-50 for sure but more because the only way for me to qualify automatically for the Ryder Cup is to be in the world top-50. I need to be in the top-50 to get into those events and to gather the points. It’s not easy if you’re outside of that, it’s really difficult.
“I’ve longer to get into the top-50 for the Masters … I have until March to do that. But for some of the big money events towards the end of the year, you have to be in the top-50 by September. I’m talking about the ones later on.”
Living with the frustrations of your job is part and parcel of life for everyone, including golfers. But being well rewarded for playing sport doesn’t make the bad days any easier to accept.
“Like everyone else, I get very frustrated. I try and manage it but I get very frustrated when things don’t go right at the end of the day. But I’m very optimistic the minute I go out and do something.
“A good example of that would be last week in Reno. I played the last hole badly and it looked like it cost me making the cut … in the end it didn’t but it looked that way at the time. I felt terrible when I finished. I’d got myself back into it and made a mess of the last hole. All of a sudden I’m gutted.
“And you are gutted, even though making a cut really is irrelevant in the whole scheme of things. Nobody’s going to be remembered for making cuts but we all like making them. So I’m very disappointed.
“But my family is there and we’re having lunch. I’m not in the best form but before we headed off to do what we’re going to do for the rest of the day, I said ‘look, I’m heading outside to hit shots’ and hitting shots for 45 minutes makes me optimistic. Everything is looking forward.
“Just hitting shots wouldn’t do it. You go out there and you find something you think is significant … it never is but many times you fool yourself into believing ‘this is going to help me going forward’. You always want to have something to occupy yourself and keep yourself going.
“The most important thing you can do to relieve stress is to talk to people. It’s not necessary for them to talk back. That’s the most important thing. You see it in bigger situations when people are genuinely under stress, I’ve obviously been involved in some more serious things, talk is the biggest and the best thing you can do. Talk to somebody.
“You need to talk and somebody just needs to be there to listen to you. There’s no doubt that I’d be very frustrated in the evening time if my round has finished badly and I’m sitting there and I haven’t had a chance to get it off my chest.
“Talking to you guys (the media) isn’t the answer. How am I going to put this without offending you or anyone else – it’s really about talking to somebody who cares in a personal sense and who listens, will agree with you and lets you rant away.
“For me it would have been simple. Every round I played starting out as a pro, I’d have rung home to my dad. I’d tell him about everything in the round, every shot I’d played and how, and he’d say well done or whatever. Certainly, [my wife] Caroline would have taken that over.
“There’s no doubt having somebody who is sympathetic towards you. The key here is that it’s not somebody who is telling you about the round or about what somebody else did. Or judging you in any shape or form. It’s somebody who is just listening away.
“A good example - you could turn around to somebody and say ‘I hit a lovely drive on the 18th hole’ and you don’t want to hear back ‘but it went in the bunker’. I know it went in the bunker, I hit a lovely drive. If I was talking to you it would be ‘but it went in the bunker, how could that be a lovely drive’. That’s the difference with somebody who cares.”
The temptation to look back is overwhelming but like FC Barcelona, Harrington knows that past successes must be used as fuel for the dreams that keep us all on the road and not as the road map itself.
“I would be very keen to remind other Major winners that they are a Major winner and nobody can take it away from them. I would also remind them of what they actually did to win their Major because that’s reminding me of what I’ve done.
“Shaun Micheel I’d say hit one of the greatest golf shots ever on the 18th hole. I’d ask him about it and remind him that he’s a PGA Champion. Some people when they’ve won a Major it’s a burden to be carried around and it’s only when they retire, they start appreciating it.
“You have to enjoy and appreciate it at the time. Otherwise it’s gone by you. You try and remind people of the good they’ve done because it’s so easy to let these things go by you.”
Harrington is a 125/1 shot to win the US PGA - a fair reflection of his recent results. Perhaps now he can finally perform.
“I would suggest most tournaments I’ve played this year, I’ve gone in with over-expectations. But having not played as well as I’d have liked last week and, to be honest, I played fine until I hit a bad tee shot at the last, which was disturbing, I’m going in there with less expectations this week. So maybe that’s a good thing.”