Padraig Harrington has made a career out of turning what have looked like certain defeats in glorious victories - and vice-versa. He calls them the twin imposters of success and failure.
Yet even by his own wild and wonderful standards, following a 79 in his last outing in the Honda Classic with a 10 under par, course record 61 in the Transitions Championship in Tampa was a mighty leap, even for the true believers.
For the past 18 months or more, he has been telling those willing to listen that his game is good and that it’s just a matter of time before it all comes together. Yet while there have been sparks of golden brilliance in that time, the general colour scheme has been dark with a hint of grey.
“If you were left in your own little world well it, would be a lot easier in some ways but when you’re trying to explain things. It’s difficult to explain it when you go, ‘I hit the ball well. I couldn’t ask for any more than that.’ I’m doing the right stuff. I’m working on the right stuff. I’m putting in the effort. And just kind of go, you don’t have the answers. Probably the hardest part is you’ve been asked questions that you don’t have the answer to. And you try and explain it, and maybe explaining it digs you into a deeper hole that you’re still trying to explain your way out.”
The closing 79 he shot in West Palm Beach 12 days ago was deceptive in that he got the worst of the weather on a day when Lee Westwood shot 63 and Tiger Woods a 62. Yet even as he reflected on that disastrous performance when speaking to local radio the following week, Harrington made it clear that he was patiently waiting for some confidence.
“The game of golf is like a lot of sports - it is swings and roundabouts,” he told the Social Gambler Radio’s John Arnette. “My game has never been better. It is just waiting to happen. But I am getting a bit frustrated at times. You have spells when you are not on your peak form and then when it does happen, it happens easily. It all comes at once, like buses.”
His 61 was the lowest round of his professional or amateur career, though he did shoot a 61 at the 2001 Nedbank Challenge that did not count as a course record because preferred lies were in operation.
On Thursday at Innisbrook’s Copperhead course, Harrington had 10 birdies. But the key figures was 14 and 22 - 14 single putts and 22 putts in total. It was little wonder that he finished the day with a three stroke lead over Will Claxton (64). The next best scores were the 66s by Cameron Tringale, John Senden, Kenny Perry, Jason Dufner, William McGirt, Jason Bohn and Jim Furyk. World No 2 Luke Donald and Justin Rose, the recent winner of the WGC-Cadillac Championship, shot 67s.
Having watched Harrington threaten to shoot 59 and then closed out his round with three straight birdies at the venemous stretch called the Snake Pit - he drained a 75 footer at the 17th for example - it was little wonder that Zach Johnson applauded the Dubliner’s 16 footer at the 18th before signing his own 71.
“When it’s your day, I could have turned my back on the hole and I would have holed the putt on the last,” Harrington said of his closing birdie. “That’s just the way it is when things are going for you.”
The other member of the group, Geoff Ogilvy, shot a 72 and told the Associated Press: “On the first tee, I didn’t see 61. But after you see it done … the only really, completely unreasonable birdie was on the 17th. There was never any stress.”
Harrington has been around too long to get overexcited about one round and pointed to the next few weeks rather than the next few days at the real litmus test for his game.
“Obviously today it showed the potential,” he said of his game. “Obviously today is a peak. But we’ll wait and see what happens over the next number of weeks. I certainly have a good understanding of my game, let’s say, at the moment.”
His coach Pete Cowen said just days ago that his newest pupil was going to have a huge year. We nodded, familiar with the game and the sentiment. Yet while the good was great, the average golf has been poorer than normal, especially over the short putts.
For Harrington, the sporadically poor putting has been caused by doubting his line. In other words, he was struggling for confidence, especially in tournament rounds.
“Where do I start,” Harrington said when asked for some comments on his round. “I’ve been playing nicely in practice. I shot 64 yesterday [he also had a hole in one]. For a long time now, I play better on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday than I do on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I’m trying to stay patient. I know my game is good. One of the hardest things is to wait with confidence. I haven’t putted very well, certainly very inconsistent for the last year and it’s been showing up in my results.”
As a quick summary, Harrington’s assessment was pretty good. Sliding down the world rankings to 90th in the world from a high of third following his most recent PGA Tour win - the 2008 US PGA - has just made it harder.
The 40-year old has had one minor win in Malaysia and another 13 top 10s in the 52 events he’s played over the past two years. He’s also missed 12 cuts and been disqualified once.
Not many easy world ranking points there, unlike what was on offer at the WGC-Accenture Match Play or the WGC-Cadillac Championship, where he was conspicuous by his absence this year.
“A lot of my good weeks are struggling just to get inside the Top10 and that’s kind of just showing up in my World Rankings, because unless you’re finishing first, second or third you are not getting substantial points in that sense. So, yeah, it’s been a strange last year, but as I said, I’m very comfortable where my game is at. I’ve made a lot of what I feel are good improvements and for a long time, I’m feeling like things are ready to happen.”
Yesterday, it all came together spectacularly. But the fact that he didn’t birdie any of the three downwind par-fives makes the round all the more remarkable.
No-one should be better prepared than Harrington to deal with following a huge high like a 61 with more modest fare. After all, it was winning three majors in 13 months that caused all this grief in the first place.
“I won three majors, but any of the guys who have won single majors or have had a peak year, peak performance, it’s very frustrating afterwards, because if you’ve had a peak, you have to go back to the normality. That’s because the reality is not real; it would be average if it wasn’t a peak. If you have a peak, you have to go back down. But trying to explain that all the time, it’s quite tough.
“I won three majors in 2007, 2008. It’s not like I was going to win two a year after that. At the end of the day, I may go on and win more majors, but if you look at any, like the likes of, say, Faldo who, has won the most majors of any European, six majors, he didn’t win them over a space of two or three years. He won them over a 20-year space, or 15, anyway.
“Sports, we have this thing, especially in golf, that if somebody plays well, a lot of people think, oh, they are just going to continue to play well; they may improve, but they are going to have little ups and downs as they go along. I think that’s the greatest thing I’ve learned over 16 years of golf.
“I watch everybody’s game and I have a greater understanding when I see somebody playing great, I understand how it ebbs and flows, and I don’t necessarily go, right, he’s won a major, so that means he’s going to win one every year. But even Tiger, he hasn’t won one every year. We get sucked into thinking that somebody playing well can maintain that. But you know, they will over their career but not year to year.”
1st Par 5 560 yards 86 yard sand wedge to six feet. Birdie.
2nd Par 4 435 yards 124-yard wedge to five feet. Birdie.
3rd Par 4 455 yards Chipped and putted for par from five feet. “Those are the sort of things you need to do.”
4th Par 3 195 yards “Hit it to 12 feet for birdie.” [He aced the hole in shooting 64 in the Wednesday pro-am.]
5th Par 5 605 yards “Disappointing, I missed about a 10 footer for birdie there. Uphill, pretty straightforward putt.”
6th Par 4 465 yards “Straightforward two-putt [par from 54 feet].
7th Par 4 420 yards “Holed a 9 footer for birdie.”
8th Par 3 335 yards “Got up and down out of the bunker.” 18 inch putt.
9th Par 4 425 yards “I hit 9-iron [141 yards] from the left hand rough to about five feet.”
Out 31 (-5)
10th Par 4 445 “I hit an 8-iron [157 yards] to about 18 feet, I would have said. Rolled that in.” Six under with eight to play.
11th Par 5 575 yards Just a par. “I choked like a dog on 11 [thinking of shooting 59]. I had an 8-footer up the hill, as easy a putt as you could get and I got over it and started thinking, if I hole this, I’m 7-under par, seven holes to go, I only need to make five more birdies and was nearly playing the hole. I just got totally out of where I should have been, hit a bad putt and missed. But if anything, it kind of got the 59 out of my head. So as much as I did choke on is that correct it made it easier for the rest of the holes because I didn’t think I didn’t really think 59 was on after that.”
12th Par 4 380 yards 9 iron from 148 yards to 26 feet. Seven under.
13th Par 3 175 yards 2 putts from 36 feet.
14th Par 5 590 yards “Made a bit of a mess at 14, the par 5. Interesting, shoot 61, three downwind par 5s I didn’t birdie.”
15th Par 3 215 yards. “Hit a nice shot on 15 just short but chipped it up stone dead. So a couple of times missed greens, like on 15 and 8, I came out stone dead, because it’s nice, keeps the momentum going.”
16th Par 4 460 yards. Birdie. “I hit a lovely 6iron in there. Every round, you’re waiting to get through your tee shot. 16, I hit a nice tee shot and hit a 6iron to about six feet, right on top of the ridge there. You know it’s your day when you’re putting down very much a crown there. You’re really guessing at which way it’s going to go, but on your day it goes the right way. I guarantee you there will be a lot of players having a frustrating day, telling you they hit it exactly where they wanted and it missed. I squeezed mine down the righthand side and it just hung in there nicely. That’s your day.”
17th Par 3 215 yards. “I hit it a 4iron, I hit it high in the clubface, a hybrid, well short, 75 feet and holed it. Must be the longest putt I’ve holed on TOUR [beating the 66 footer to beat Jim Furyk on the 72nd hole for the Barclays at Westchester in 2005]. I would like to tell it you was funneling right up the green and couldn’t go anywhere else, but certainly the last 15 feet it was right in the middle of the hole. That’s a bonus obviously.”
18th Par 4 445 yards. Pitching wedge 133 yards to 16 feet.
In 30 (-5)
Total 61 (-10).
It all went perfectly yesterday, but Harrington revealed that he has not been tempted to snap anyone’s head off out of frustration with his game in recent months.
“I’m sure I’d be more likely to go quiet than aggressive if I got frustrated,” he said.
He was frustrated not to turn his good practice round play into scores and to miss out on the World Golf Championships in Tucson and Miami over the past month for the first time in his career. But he has tried to keep things in perspective.
“It’s not a wakeup call because it’s not like I could be working any harder or trying any harder,” he said. “Just have to take it on the chin really. You feel like you’re good enough, but if your performances are not good enough you have no one else to blame, as I said, with my World Ranking position.
“I’m just not gathering enough points. You know, like two Top10 this is year, probably got me five points and six points or something like that, which just doesn’t cut it. You’ve got to be winning tournaments, winning the big points.
“So I have no one else to blame but myself. It is a little frustrating, but I’m working, like everybody else, working to keep a good attitude and be patient and let it happen and look at the positives.”
Whatever he does for the next six months, Harrington knows that the good stuff is better than ever. Producing it in the heat of battle is the challenge.