The Special One: "The ultimate satisfaction of winning is understanding how I got there"

The Special One: "The ultimate satisfaction of winning is understanding how I got there"
Pádraig Harrington speaks to reporters at Royal Liverpool on 14 July 2014. Picture © Brian Keogh

Pádraig Harrington speaks to reporters at Royal Liverpool on 14 July 2014. Picture © Brian Keogh

When Pádraig Harrington was preparing to chase his third Open victory in a row at Turnberry and his fourth major in the space of two years, he reflected on what it meant to be great, or special.

He wasn’t talking about himself at the time but of two of the greatest gladiators the game has ever seen, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, and their famous Duel in the Sun at the Scottish links in 1977.

“I was fascinated by was their ability after they hit bad shots, to come out and hit a great shot,” Harrington said back in 2009, a few days before his game went AWOL at The Open. “And that takes huge .... that's massive. One of the biggest hallmarks of a winner is somebody who can hit a bad shot and walk up to the next shot like the previous one never happened.”

Harrington had won three times since he captured the 2008 US PGA six and a half years ago, though his two wins on the Asian Tour and the 2012 PGA Grand Slam of Golf, didn’t count for American audiences as he chased down the Honda Classic yesterday afternoon.

And yet those wins meant the world to Harrington because he’d put himself in position and come up trumps.

Winning when you get the chance had always been one of his greatest failings and he wasn’t about to let the 2015 Honda Classic become yet another runner up finish, even after hitting that five iron into the drink on the 71st hole.

After all, Harrington had 32 official second place finishes to his credit before getting to Palm Beach Gardens this week. And having endured what has been a long desert crossing in terms of making an impact at the very highest level, he has never lost sight of the big prize.

Some great players have no idea why they are great. It just happens for those super talented being, the geniuses of the world. But those aren't the characters who hold any fascination for Harrington. 

He's happy to think of himself as the golfing equivalent of Howard Hughes, who once took an expensive Mercedes to pieces as a schoolboy, just to see how it worked. As Hughes craved the cars secrets, so too has Harrington dismantled his own inner workings to find out what makes him tick.

Pádraig Harrington changes his shoes in the locker room at Hazeltine after the 2009 US PGA. He was in contention until he made a quintuple-bogey eight on the par-3 8th and ended up shooting 78 to tie for 10th, eight shots behind YE Yang. Picture © Brian Keogh

Pádraig Harrington changes his shoes in the locker room at Hazeltine after the 2009 US PGA. He was in contention until he made a quintuple-bogey eight on the par-3 8th and ended up shooting 78 to tie for 10th, eight shots behind YE Yang. Picture © Brian Keogh

For several years he fell into a trap he promised he’d avoid — the kind of trap that makes major winners says things like, “that’s not the shot of a major champion” when the ball heads out of bounds or a two foot putt lips out.

His grim determination to achieve that perfect, Zen-like focus became a burden, as he said after yesterday’s memorable, and career changing, victory. 

Realising he could separate his focus from the actual execution of the shots was key.

“I became very intolerant of my focus and got frustrated with it,” he said last night.

Add to that a case of the yips during his best ball-striking year “ever” in 2012 and the magnitude of Harrington’s achievement cannot be understated.

While some are happy that something “works” and refuse to tinker with it for fear of breaking it, Harrington could not sit still until he “knew” exactly what made him tick.

As the Greeks said, “Know thyself.”

Harrington, though, is not like most people.

Is he special?

“Yes,” he replied back in 2009.  “Very complicated. Very complicated and into what is happening, what is going on. 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.”

What makes Harrington great is not what he does but the way he refuses to take it for granted. After all, he’s worked hard to become Pádraig Harrington and has more admiration for Bernhard Langer because he got over the yips three times than he might for a natural sprting genius such as Diego Maradona.

“Howard Hughes, as a ten year old kid, he walked into the garage and bought a model T ford or a Mercedes and wanted to pull it apart," Harrington pointed out. "That's me with my golf game.”

Is that what makes Harrington great?

“No,” he replied.“That's what makes me.”

As the Greeks said, Know Thyself.