There’s a cool, calm and collected air about Padraig Harrington this week. It’s a combination of what he calls “closure” with his golf swing and the experience he has gleaned from 11 previous trips down Magnolia Lane.
Gone is the dervish who ran around “like a headless chicken” when he arrived for his debut in 2000. Gone is the man who spent three days looking for the right driver in 2009, when he was seeking the third leg of the “Paddy Slam” following his back-to-back major wins the previous summer.
Harrington is cool, not because he believes he is about to win the Masters, but because he knows he will have a chance to win more majors before he retires from the game.
The 39-year old Dubliner is coming into Augusta under the radar and feeling happier than ever about his game. But he refuses to put himself under pressure to pull on that green jacket this season.
Clean-shaven for the first time in more than a week, his simplified swing is looking smoother than it has for quite some time. He also comes to Augusta playing well following a top 10 finish in the Shell Houston Open, which was his best performance the week before the Masters for many years.
He showed over the weekend in Texas that he still doesn’t quite trust himself 100 percent. But he has convinced himself that he has done everything in his power to prepare for golf’s toughest test and he is bristling with a controlled anticipation of what might unfold.
“I’ve done all I can, that’s my attitude,” Harrington said as he stood outside the famous clubhouse on a cool Tuesday morning - the calm after the storm that ravaged the city the night before. “I’m happy with what I’ve done and where I’m at, where my game is at and where I’m going. All that sort of stuff.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to play your best week or anything like that, but I am comfortable with me.”
It’s looking good, we venture. All is well in the parallel world they call Planet Harrington.
“I agree the signs are good. They are, there’s no doubt about that. I am focused on a big week. Things are in a very good place now and going forward.”
Going into depth about where he sees himself right now, he said: “I’ve a great trust in what I’m doing in and around the game. I would say I lacked a bit of trust on the golf course [in Houston] at times but in and around what I’m doing, I’m very happy with me, what I’m doing, and I’ve never had a better understanding. I feel good about where my game is at and there’s good clarity in it.”
Not a man to shout ‘carpe diem’ from the rooftops, Harrington is looking for longevity and the chance to contend for majors over the next seven or eight years. But he’s also aware that he’s here to perform.
“This is the week of the Masters. You want to bring your game this week. There is an element of me that I’m happy and wouldn’t have changed anything coming into this. But I think I could be a better player over the next couple of months too. It’s not that I’ve changed anything for this.
“There is an element of going forward and that but I am focussed on this week. But in the overall picture, as regards my game, I’m in a good place for the next how many years.
“So I’ll be competing in many Majors in those years. I will get into contention in some of those Majors and I will win some of them. I don’t want to put it all on this week, though.
“It would be silly to heap all off the pressure on, thinking I’ve got to turn out this week and play like this and if it doesn’t happen this week, something wrong with the programme. In fact, the programme is pretty good.”
Asked if he had ever felt as relaxed before a major, Harrington said: “I can’t say I am relaxed. If you feel like you are playing well, you can’t be relaxed….. Even the last couple of weeks I’ve been visualising the holes and shots you have to hit. There’s a number of shots you’ve got to get to grips with on the course.
“Then there’s other shots that stay the same every year, if you know what I mean. You’ve got to be comfortable what shot you are going to hit off the 13th tee, for example. Are you going to try and hit it over the trees on the left if the tee box lets you – sometimes they push it forward or to the left a bit. Or are you going to try and draw it around the corner? What’s the wind like?
“That has to be done on the day but then there are other tee shots that are similar on any given day. I mean I’d love to go out and for an hour play pitch shots into the 15th because you can never get enough of that.
“There’s certain holes out there require a lot of work but what I’ve realised over the 11 years, because of the way the course changes, not every hole requires the same – you don’t need to hit 10 chips onto every green or whatever.”
Phil Mickelson believes that total aggression is the best route to Masters victory. But Harrington is not about to get sucked into that game.
“I think Phil would like everybody to try and play his game. If we were to read the newspapers and believe that, I think he’d be very happy if everybody had to play as aggressively as him because he does it rather well.
“He has a valid point that, unlike other Majors, it is possible but not every year that you may have to play the back nine in four or five under par to win the tournament. That doesn’t happen in every other Major. If you play the back nine in level par, you’re gaining leaps and bounds.
“It is possible that this one requires you to be aggressive on the way home, which is unusual, but it’s not set in stone. There have been years when a level par back nine will win you the Massters, whereas other years it won’t
“The golf course, how you set it up, the conditions, who you are competing against will determine how aggressive how you have to be but it is an interesting golf course for that one thing that, yes, sometimes this course will force you to be aggressive. You may need to try and make eagle at 13 and 15 and birdies at 14 and 16 but I don’t think anybody has the ability to be aggressive a 10, 11 or 12.”
Graeme McDowell joked that Phil Mickelson is being trumpted as such an overwhelming favourite that the resot of the field might has well go home now.
“You would agree, the way he looked like he played last week and the parts of his game that are strong,” Harrington said. “But I’d be very happy if I’m the guy who makes him play that way. That would be my goal.”
Based on experience, Harrington has kept his workload to a minimum this week. He began with a two hour chat with his mental coach Bob Rotella on Monday and then played nine holes yesterday.
He hasn’t troubled the Wilson Staff men for new clubs either.
“Not a single change of equipment, which I’m delighted about,” he said. “Nothing changed, nothing at all.”
All the hard work has been done in previous years. No more will we see him spend three and a half hours on the front nine, measuring slopes on greens with a spirit level.
“I did all that work last year,” he said, proudly fishing out a yardage book containing hand drawn maps of the greens that are full of symbols and arrows, a lifetime of Augusta experiences in two dimensions.
“There’s the putts I’ve hit over the years, from all the different pin positions from all the different breaks,” he said, pointing to the hieroglyphics. “There’s a map of every green out there and all the different slopes. I have this one a few years – I transferred the information from the older one. Basically it’s all the putts I’ve hit over the years and how they react.
“I didn’t do all that in the one day but I got all that work done, it was a one-off and now I have all those measurements.”
A colleague venture: “You sound at the moment like a man who …”
“Who’s late, by 15 minutes,” Harrington said with a grin, cutting him off in mid sentence.
“… a man who has overcome the twin burdens of hope and expectation. You seem very level?”
Examining the question like a man examining a firm, juicy apple, Harrington said: “I have expectations, no doubt about it, but I’m trying to make sure that I’ve taken those expectations and spread them out over time. Rather than thinking I’ve come here this year and should do this or that, I understand my game and over the next couple of years, it’s only going forward in very positive ways.”