Padraig Harrington feels like a rookie as he prepares to return to Augusta National after a mere one-year absence. The truth is that the Dubliner only started to appreciate what he had when it was taken away and he's determined to take advantage of what he admits could be one of his final opportunities to win the Masters.
Rory McIlroy is dominating the build up but Harrington knows he'll have his options having won for the first time on the PGA Tour in nearly seven years.
“I'm excited to be back. It's like I'm playing my first Masters," he said before heading out to Houston for his final event before the trip to Augusta. "That about sums it all up, doesn't it. It feels like I didn't miss one year, it feels like I missed a number of years.
“I did sit and watch it all last year and it was hard to watch because I do feel like I was competitive in the Masters over the last number of years and so I felt I could have been competitive last year.
“Obviously I'm in decent form so I'm a little bit more excited abut going back to the Masters and as somebody reminded me, it's not like I'm going to have that many more Masters going forward, so I'm running out of time.
“A couple of people reminded me that it's not like I'm 20 years of age and have another 20 Masters ahead of me. I might have, let's see, five or six or seven in which I might be competitive.”
Age is just a number as far as Harrington is concerned. At 43, he says he hits the ball further now than he ever has. But he also has more scar tissue, more baggage.
"Whether some people call it burnout or whether you want to call it just a lot of experience, that might be the only thing that would hinder me in my performance," he says. "It's not a physical thing, that's for sure, but my innocence is well and truly gone at this stage.
Ireland's great champion has never had to struggle the way he's struggled over the last few years and it hit home hard when the big weeks that used to arrive and rescue tough situations simply failed to materialise.
“Yeah. I'm a very optimistic person and I set myself goals and I believe that I'm going to do this, that and the other, or try and do this, that and the other. I will say over the last year or two, the last year anyway, it was a big shock to me, I think, probably coming into the last Ryder Cup and I suppose the likes of the Masters as well, because always in my career, whatever I'd set out to do, I end up doing somehow. When the crunch came I did something that would push me into place. “
Whereas as maybe the last two, three years, and the Ryder Cup 2014, a number of deadlines came along and I right up to the deadline I thought, 'yeah, something's going to happen that will fall into place so that I will succeed at this'.
"The last two, three years, those sort of things, instead of me doing something special, I've done nothing and failed. So that has been a bit of a shock to me the last couple of years.
“It was the first time in my career that I've essentially failed to make it through to teams or something like that and the likes of the Masters being the sort of thing I'd think 'yeah, yeah, yeah, I'll get it done'.
“Maybe earlier in my career I would have had much more of a sense of urgency to make these things but with experience, in the last couple of years the urgency hasn't been there because I'd think I'm going to do it, whereas as a kid I'd have been fearful that it's not going to happen. I think anxiety helped but with experience, or without the innocence, I think 'ah yeah, I'll be okay, I'll get this done' but it hasn't happened.
“So it has been a bit of a shock not to be in the Masters. I'm in a good place now, in that I'm focused on this and I've played good golf in the Masters. It's all about the preparation at the moment, which is the right place for a golfer to be, rather than, you know, 'am I going to win?' or 'am I happy to be here?', either of those sort of things.”
"We had Tiger back then"
Harrington believes it is easier to win majors now that it was a few years ago.
"We had Tiger back then, there was a lot less of them to win. If somebody picked up the amount he’s picking up, it doesn’t leave a lot left. Phil obviously had a good run in that time. Obviously Rory could go on a run like this, but that remains to be seen in terms of if he starts picking off one or two a year, that leaves a lot less for everybody else."
Harrington admits that he was being polite to McIlroy at Carnoustie when he cradled the Claret Jug and looked at the Silver Medal winner and said he was glad he'd won his major before the young Ulsterman found his stride.
"I knew he was a huge star on his way up," Harrington explains. "They were words of encouragement. Did I know? I had never played golf with him before that, I had seen what he had done was very impressive, his performances in amateur tournaments, I don’t know were they any better than Gordon Sherry’s one in Carnoustie 99? I was being encouraging, I really didn’t know at that stage.
"I knew he was a very good amateur and destined to go on to great things, but there have been plenty of good amateurs, it is a lot harder to do it. And Rory has done it which is incredibly impressive. There is so few people who show potential at a young age like that. How will I put this? There’s so many people who show potential at a young age who don’t come through, there is only a few that ever do succeed and Rory has done that which is tough."
And now? Rory is clearly a player that can dominate the way Woods dominated.
"I suppose would have to say Rory is a bit like Tiger in the sense of you always look for Tiger’s name after the first round. Even before the draw, to see where he was playing. If Tiger gets his teeth into a tournament, it did worry everyone and Rory would be a bit like that too. He has proved if he gets into the lead he can hold the lead. There hasn’t been a lot of people in major golf who can do that.
"Rory is the man now, Tiger was the man then, who could take a lead and go with it. It is easier to win a Major than a regular event, that’s for sure; there is more strength in depth now than there was years ago, there isn’t somebody as prolific as Tiger, but there may be going forward, there could well be in Rory going forward."
Magnolia Lane and more
Harrington told Shane Lowry that the Masters was everything he'd ever imagined it to be, and more. And he sticks by that description.
"Even just driving in the gates, the invite. Is there a tournament in the world you get an invite, that piece of paper? You’re excited. You turn up, in the gate, in Magnolia Drive, phenomenal, you’re exicited. You’re still excited. I will be excited. Practically the first person I met (in 2000) was Sam Snead. The opportunity to meet some of these older pros is there because they do turn up. The way the whole thing is run, there is a sense of awe about everything about it. The tournament, the golf course itself, the spectators, there is nothing like it."
"And then the test!
"And then the test! There is very few tests in golf, and this is what makes Augusta unique, a lot of major tournaments test how well we can play really, really, really. If you have the back nine of any major, and you are leading, and you shoot nine pars on that back nine, you would be very unlucky to lose. Whereas Augusta puts you under pressure. It gets you to that back nine believing if you don’t shoot two- three- four-under par, you are going to get passed. There is huge pressure, people think 13 and 15, they are two reachable Par 5s, but you have got to get birdies. It’s a lot harder to makebirdies on those holes than it would be on a tough Par 4 to make a par.
"So, it is a different test. The fact, the tournament committee know their golf course so well they have, going back there every year, that’s a big plus for it as well, going back every year creates that mystique about the course. The tournament know their golf course so well, and I don’t mean they manufacture it, but they know how to create the drama so you can be under extreme pressure on some holes because it is difficult but then under pressure on other holes because they are giving you such an easy chance to make birdies that if you don’t take it we feel terrible.
"And that’s the thing at Augusta, they can put the front pin on 8 and you don’t get that many opportunities, you can make eagle there if if you hit two good shots. Easily make eagle. And if you don’t make birdie you are devastated.
And they can do that on any hole in Augusta and you are never quite sure until you see the pin position and the tee box placement, because they do move those tees around an awful lot. Like, you can go to number 7 in Augusta, if they put the tee on the back you are literally hitting a six iron down the hill to that green, which is as difficult a golf shot as you can have.
"If they push it up to the front, you wouldn’t even notice. It is literally a drive and wedge, it is that much difference. You wouldn’t notice it until you are there playing it, and that’s what is so good about Augusta. They push you into hitting shots, offer up a pin position that you cannot play safe on, you literally have to go for it, for that pin. Then they put pins in like on the right at 12 and you’re standing there, forever confusing what is the right shot to hit.
"Do i hit it at the flag? Should I be hitting at the middle of the green? There’s so many shots on the golf course, as much as you do preparation, they are still asking the question, what’s the right option here?
Harrington cannot recall much of the 2009 Masters, when he was going for his third Major win in a row. The hype had reached saturation point by then anyway and he believes it will be the same for McIlroy, next week, and going forward.
"He’s always at saturation point. He’s well able to handle it, because he has to. It’s a bit like Tiger: Tiger was brilliant at managing it because that was his life, and it’s become Rory’s life.
"There will be a lot of hype but I think the hype is more from the outside world. He will be dealing with the same hype in his world that he always is. Just about every event for him is the same now He’s getting a lot of practice at it, so I don’t think it’s going to be as big an issue for him. It shouldn’t be that big an issue for him."
Few 25 year olds have experience the highs and lows that McIlroy has experienced and that's his great advantage. After the meltdown at Augusta in 2011 came the US Open followed by the US PGA and the Nike deal. Then came the slump of 2013, the Wozniacki hype and the two major wins of last year.
"I think ultimately with Rory, one of the biggest strengths he has, is he has had a couple of periods in his career where he has had mini-slumps and he has come back out of them as strong, or stronger.
"To him, he’s got to feel bullet-proof, being able to come back from Augusta, making those mistakes and coming back, that takes phenomenal fortitude but it brings with it tremendous belief.
"When he won down in Australia that time (2013) coming off a really bad run in Europe and the States, that brings tremendous belief to a person. The fact he can go, “Hey look, if I’m not playing well keep doing the good stuff and it will turn around”, I think that’s one of Rory’s biggest strengths.
He has belief he has the ability to play great golf and if it turns sour for a time, it’s only a matter of time before he can work his way through and get it back.
"Take it like this: he’s going into Augusta and there is pressure on him to go and win three in a row. But if he doesn’t win, it’s not the end for him. He realises, “Oh well, I can go and win the next one”.
"That makes it easier to win this one, when he’s not thinking this is the end, this is inevitable, this is the last one. He’s thinking, “Hang on a second, I want to win this one. Great, but if it doesn’t happen I want to win the next one and I can do that”.
"That takes the pressure off this one. The biggest thing he can do is try and take some of the pressure of this one by not making this the be all and end all of defining who he is as a golfer, which he won’t. He’s in a good spot because of his past experiences."
Augusta's emotional baggage
"I’ve always said that about Augusta: not alone do you bring your own emotional baggage, you bring other players’ emotional baggage because you’ve watched the event. You’ve seen everybody else’s bad shots over the years and you remember them. I think it makes it difficult. I would say 15 has been a tougher hole for me having watched Seve dunk it in the water (in 1986), than it should be.
When you see someone the likes of Seve, one of the greatest players and pitchers of all time, it makes it a lot more tangible to yourself when you see someone like that do it. You go, “Wow! Maybe I could do that”. I’m always the happiest guy in the world when I can hit it over the back of 15 or hit it to the bunker on 15 or hit it on the green at 15, rather than have to lay it up and hit that pitch.
"No doubt there are shots like that. And there are other shots I pick up during the week. I’m sitting here on the phone but when I actually face a particular shot I’m more likely to remember it, but 15 is the one that comes to mind now. If I can bring it to my mind so quickly now, it’s going to be a lot harder when you’re actually standing there on the 15th.
"It would be bit like going down the 18th at Carnoustie. You will always think of Jean Van de Velde. There is other people's baggage as well as your own. There are some good experiences as well. The biggest think in terms of experience of Augusta is the strategy. By changing tee boxes, strategy can change.
"I assume I have seen pretty much everything I need to have seen at Augusta. If I find something different well I'll know, that pin is there, so this the best place to hit it to go at the pin. Or you can be forced to hit it this side and you can get up and down... I think the experience is a good thing at Augusta but yeah, a little bit of baggage doesn't help at times. That's the beauty of going back to the same course every year for a major. It creates excitement and drama.
"On the other side, I can guarantee you, if you are standing over a 20 footer to a front left pin [on 18] to win at Augusta, you will be thinking of Phil Mickelson. I will be. He holed that putt. That's exactly what I'd be thinking of. If I have an iron shot into 18, I'll be thinking of Angel Cabrera hitting it stone dead.
"There are other players out there who have hit great shots. So there are definitely positives there from watching others. But then, you think of Greg Norman spinning it off the green on nine. That sticks in my head as well. So each hole probably has one huge memory from other majors."
What about Rory at 10?
"Thankfully I was thinking Bubba Watson for 10, recover from a bad shot. I don't hit driver on 10. I go over the top of those trees with a three wood rather than trying to go around them. But sometimes, this is the beauty of it, the push the tee up so you can't get it up in time to go over the trees. And sometimes they move the tee box a little further left. Only two or three yards and that makes it that little bit tighter. These are the little things that they do in the set up that makes the golf course different from day to day."
Harrington has his own pet holes and others he loves to hate.
Every hole changes from day to day. I will say that I have changed my attitude to holes like 13, not necessarily 15 because I don't like the lay up. But 13 I laid up off the tee and left myself a three iron into the green. I found that shot over the years to be a bit iffy. So I take a chance with the aggressive tee shot now, so that I cut the corner and leave myself anything from a five iron down to a seven iron into that green. The tee shot is high risk but obviously the second shot is a lot easier and I make more eagles because of that. The 13th is pivotal. If I hit four good tee shots at 13... If I hit a bad tee shot I am in the woods left. So it is like losing a ball. I take my chances.
"And 15 would be the same. I will play aggressively because I have found that's what suits me. It is not that the other strategy doesn't suit other players, that strategy that suits me is to play them aggressively, take them on and hope that it's my week, rather than play defensively and finish in the middle of the pack. I am going all out on these particular holes and you really do have to take your birdie chances. You can hit it into the middle of the green on 12, you can hit it into the middle of the green on 11. But on 13 and 15, you have got to take your birdies."
Some suggests the par-three fourth is an interesting hole. Harrington is amused.
"Oh. If four excites you, you are into the wrong sort of excitement. That's all I can say. (Laughing). Last time I played it was the first time they went to the back tee for the front left pin. Before that they had always gone to the front left pin, which was always a seven iron to the front left pin. They took us back and made it a hybrid into that front left pin. A four wood into the green. The big problem hitting four wood into the green off the back tee is that if you get no wind, all of a sudden you are through the back of the green into the bushes. If it is an unbelievably tough tee shot to hit from an elevated tee into such ... it does seem like a small target.... in swirling winds. It can make you look foolish. Four threes on the fourth and you are the man."
And Shane? What can we expect from the Clara genius on his debut? The youngster has high hopes of a big week and Harrington is doing all he can to help.
"I think we'll get some good tweets," Harrington jokes. "I know I am due to play a couple of practice rounds with him and I am playing the par-three with him. Look, it's hard being a rookie going in there. He has a good game for the golf course. He hits it plenty long enough and he has a really good short game.
"I would never advocate for a player and say, you are going for the first time ever, just enjoy it. You can have a good performance but it is tough to go all the way at Augusta in your first appearance. I know he will be competitive and will want to get himself in there and I do believe he can have a very good finish there.
"And I am sure his goal, realistically, will be to try and get top 15 so he gets back the following year, that sort of thing. But for sure, there won't be as many rookies as good as him going in there, put it like that. The golf course will suit him and once he gets a taste for it, he will never, ever not want to be there."
Just like Harrington.