Padraig Harrington - the man who shot a bogey free 65 in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi Championship today - was once asked if he was special.
“Yes,” he said without a hint of boastfulness. “Very complicated. Very complicated into what is happening what is going on. Yeah. Trying to understand the whole process, so that I can control it.”
When the Dubliner informed us last week that he had made up to 20 changes to his game and his equipment over his six-week winter break, the reaction was still one of general astonishment. He’s gone mad, they said. He’s bonkers. Bring on the men in the white coats.
In reality, it was just Padraig being Padraig. The Harrington machine did not run well in 2010 and he had to roll up his sleeves and get under the hood again to find out what in hell was causing that knocking sound.
“Are you eccentric,” he was asked in the desert.
“Complicated,” he replied.
If the media is bemused by Harrington’s love of rebuilding, a couple of majors winners were taken aback by the scale of the changes.
“THIS WILL TAKE MORE THAN 5 or 10 MINUTES. READ THIS,” former US PGA champion Paul Azinger tweeted.
Azinger’s tweet was retweeted by the reigning US Open champion Graeme McDowell, who simply typed: “Wow.”
Harrington has an impish quality about him and frequent Harrington watchers are no longer surprised by his capacity to produce the bonkers-sounding quote.
“I played terrible,” he will sometimes say after a 66. He’s also shot 73 and said he’s played fantastic.
On Thursday, he opened his 2011 account with five birdies and somewhat fortunate chip-in eagle at his 17th hole, followed by a trademark 20 foot putt to save par after a visit to greenside sand at the ninth.
It was one of many putts the 39-year old holed using his new pre-shot putting routine: three wafts over the top of the ball that would not look out of place in your average, Saturday morning fourball.
“I particularly like the routine and I see it as only getting better and better all over time. It is certainly not 100 percent,” Harrington said. “The first putt of the day, I dunno, I was away with the fairies when I was hitting a six footer. I wasn’t concentrating on what I was doing. But you get distracted a bit by that. As each round goes on and each tournament goes on, I will become more comfortable and the routine will become routine.
“Obviously the first round of the year there were obviously some errors in the round but they didn’t catch up on me, let’s say and I hit a lot of good shots, and a lot of good shots when I had to. There was some average stuff about the round - another day that would have been a 69 and I’d be happy with it. But I certainly got the most out of that round today.”
The putt at the last had little break but it dropped into the hole at dead centre and left Harrington just a shot behind last week’s Joburg Open winner Charl Schwartzel, who was eight under through 12 holes before finishing bogey-birdie for a 64.
Harrington somehow managed to keep his many, off-season swing thoughts out of his mind for long enough to give himself a fighting chance of ending a European Tour drought that dates back to his 2008 US PGA win at Oakland Hills.
He suggested after his round that it might take him a year to make his changes second nature, but he knows he can still get on with his day job.
“It is keeping my mind occupied and keeping me occupied for the year anyway,” he said. “There are a lot of little things in there that I feel will improve my game, but obviously I don’t need them to shoot good scores either, as I proved today.”
If Harrington’s major wins have given him the luxury of time, McDowell’s Pebble Beach win and subsequent brilliance has given him an equally priceless commodity - confidence. And he showed it again with another impressive performance that marks him out as the world’s most in-form player. Maybe even the best player in the world.
Low on adrenaline, the Ulsterman struggled to read the greens as he covered his front nine in level par 36. But he stormed home in 30 by following a birdie at the 10th with five straight birdies to finish for a 66 that leaves him tied for third - despite the best effort of an armchair referee.
The Portrush man came close to incurring a penalty at the last when he “feathered” his ball with his club at address as he prepared to play his third. The movement was obvious to anyone watching on the box. But when referee Andy McFee reviewed the slow-motion footage, it was equally clear that McDowell’s Srixon had merely oscillated and returned to its original position.
“The fairways are quite coarse and rough and I knew I hadn’t given it enough of a nudge to make it move,” McDowell said. “I was very confident that the ball had only oscillated at best. It was great to have the technology of the super slow-mo. I wasn’t getting away with anything.
“Andy McFee was able to clear that up for me. He was very confident that the ball had only oscillated and I am happy I had broken any rules there.”
The highlight of McDowell’s round were two brilliant birdies from fairway traps at the 14th and 16th, which are two of the toughest holes on the back nine.
“It was a really great way to finish because it was one of those days where nothing seemed to be happening,” McDowell said of his round of two halves. “I started to see the greens a bit better on the back nine and I just made a few putts. There were a few bombs, the one on 16 especially was from about 50 feet.”
McDowell is keen to put his feet up for the next four weeks but his opening 66 has given him something to get excited about yet again.
“I felt a bit flat on the front nine and it was nice to drag some birdies on the back nine. I’ll get out of bed early in the morning, get the adrenaline going and get myself into the business end of the tournament this weekend,” he said.
McDowell is tied for fourth in the world with Phil Mickelson, who shot a one under 71. But when asked if he felt he had found the ability to summon the X-Factor at will, he took a different tack.
Like Harrington, he knows that if he plays his game, the wins will come.
“There is no doubt that a little bit of confidence in your game gives you more of a chance to be more patient,” he said. “You don’t have to go searching for it when you are only one under par. You can be a little bit more patient and wait for it to come and have the confidence that if it didn’t happen today it will happen tomorrow.
“There is a little element of that in there. I still believe I am the same player I was 12 months ago and I am just maintaining my work ethic and working on the right things and, of course, there is a little bit of extra confidence deep down.”
The message is clear. They won majors by doing it their way and that’s never going to change.
Irish scores (Par 72)
65 Padraig Harrington
66 Graeme McDowell
70 Paul McGinley
71 Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy, Damien McGrane
75 Michael Hoey
76 Peter Lawrie