Defending Honda champ Padraig Harrington has achieved his dreams -- and says no longer fearing failure may be hurting his game
February 23, 2016
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Editor’s note: As the year draws to a close, we are bringing you some of 2016’s most unique stories to enjoy on your holiday break. Enjoy these looks at some of the unique personalities who play the game we love.
Padraig Harrington was sitting in a director’s chair on a podium against the long wall of the Pebble Beach Room, one of several meeting venues at the Lodge at Pebble Beach. Behind him was a large photo of the nearby 18th hole. To his right stood Jim Nantz, the voice of golf at CBS. To his left sat a couple of fellow PGA TOUR pros, Ryan Palmer and David Lingmerth. To the far left stood Nantz’s broadcast boothmate, six-time major winner Nick Faldo.
CBS holds this annual private cocktail event each February, to celebrate both the start of its broadcast year and the amazing location hosting that week’s TOUR event. A handful of players are brought in for a Q&A with Nantz and Faldo. It usually evolves into light chit-chat about each player’s games, goals for the new season, and so forth.
Harrington doesn’t do light chit-chat.
As talkative and as introspective as any player on TOUR – he once won the Golf Writers Association of America’s ASAP Sports/Jim Murray Award for media cooperation -- Harrington’s gift of gab is much appreciated by all those who engage with him. He says what’s on his mind, and he doesn’t mind explaining his thought process in great detail.
So Harrington launched head-first into an answer when Nantz asked the 44-year-old Irishman a question about the importance of ending his seven-year drought on the PGA TOUR by winning last year's The Honda Classic. He gave an in-depth description of the issues that had kept him out of the winner’s circle, baring his soul in a way that didn’t seem painful, but more like therapy.
Then he said this about his current mental approach to the game.
“The buzz just isn’t there.”
Then he added this.
“The fear isn’t there anymore.”
And then a little more.
“There’s no fear factor – and the fear does really help.”
At that point, the room had fallen silent, hanging on Harrington’s words. When he finished, at least one person let out a small gasp. Another said in hushed tones, “Wow, that’s telling.”
Forty-eight hours later, Harrington was asked to expound on his thoughts and the fascinating career that he’s carved out – three major victories in a 13-month span, followed by a drop-off in wins and a series of swing changes that he says unfairly labeled him as a bit of a mad scientist who dared tinker with major championship form.
As usual, he was more than willing to peel back the layers. Given that Harrington enters this week’s The Honda Classic as the defending champ – his first title defense on TOUR since the 2009 PGA Championship, the year after his last major win – it won’t be the last time somebody asks him a question. Most definitely he has never feared speaking his mind, even if the topic is fear itself.
Padraig Harrington wins on second playoff hole at The Honda Classic
HE’S NOT ALONE.
“A lot of players will say the same thing -- once you’ve peaked in your career, maybe got to the goals you wanted, everything afterwards, well, it’s very hard to get up and get going for it. Excited. Butterflies in the stomach. Nervous. The adrenaline. We all know how many guys have won one major and never been the same afterwards. It’s because they’ve achieved their goal in life. … You get something in your head, you’d be amazed how wherever you think you belong, you tend to end up. Whether it’s being a journeyman pro or winning a couple of times on TOUR, making a Ryder Cup, winning a major – you kind of set your stall out and you end up there.”
IT EVEN HAPPENED TO JACK.
“It’s very important in golf – you have to have that intensity. I remember Nicklaus saying the same thing when they asked him about his career. He more or less retired when there were no butterflies on Thursday morning.”
“When you’re at your best, you’re fearful and nervous going into a shot. It makes you narrow your focus. When you’re at your worst, you’re relaxed going into the shot. Then you become fearful and nervous as you’re over the ball. That’s kind of what changed. I’m too relaxed. I get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m gonna play great today. I’m gonna win today.’ Whereas 15 years ago, I’d be, ‘I’m gonna lose my card. It could all disappear.’ I don’t believe it’s going to disappear now.”
NO GRAND EPIPHANY.
“It wasn’t like the David Duval one, where, geez, this is not what I thought it was going to be. I played my best golf in 2009. Statistically, it was my best from tee to green. But performance-wise, 2009 was without a win. Statistically, 2012, I hit the ball the best. But my golf game hasn’t changed hardly at all in that time. I don’t putt as well. The (new rules on clubs' grooves, which went into effect in 2010) maybe did me a bit of harm, no doubt. But I still end up hitting the same amount of greens, same amount of fairways every day. “
THINKING IN PLURALS.
“I was always impressed by Phil Mickelson. When he was struggling to win majors, when anybody asked him at a press conference – this is early 2000s; I’ve been listening to this – he says, ‘I’m going to win majors.’ I copied him on that. In my head, if somebody asked, ‘Are you the best guy not to have won a major?’, I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to win majors.’ I made sure it was never one. Obviously, three was in my head somewhere.”
FULL CUP OF MAJORS.
“Maybe three was my limit. It obviously wasn’t Tiger’s limit. I suppose we end up where we think we belong a lot of the times. It’s amazing what the subconscious does. Whatever’s deep down inside us and we believe that’s our status, that’s where we end up. … Just go look at any of the players, any of the group who’ve won majors, one major, whatever. It just seems that we have this preconception this is what we’re meant to do. Thankfully, I didn’t stop at one."
DON’T BECOME THE PERSON YOU WERE.
“I’m trying to become somebody new. I don’t think you can become the person you were. If you look at Faldo – he won his last major at 38 years of age. Why didn’t he keep playing well after that? What happened to him? The game obviously did pass him by in terms of length, but his intensity went too. It’s not intensity of trying hard; it’s a certain amount of b----. Maybe it’s a certain amount of innocence too. It’s nice to be young and naïve. I’ve seen it all before. I’m definitely a little bit more cynical than I would’ve been 20 years ago.”
“You pick out a hole. A really tough driving hole. Out of bounds. Some water. I’d be thinking about that hole the night before. I’d be worried about it. How am I going to get through this hole? And when I get to it, I’d be panicking … but when I get to hit the tee shot, I’d have narrowed everything down to what I’m going to do. Whereas now, I’m not going to be thinking about it the night before when I’m having dinner.”
“I could write the book when it comes to sports psychology. I’ve read it all. I’ve worked with all the guys and I really believe in it. I love it. I’m fascinated by it. I’m interested in it. I love looking at other people and figuring out where their head’s at, what they’re doing. But when it comes to me, I’m still trying to find a way. But there isn’t a scenario where I’m going to be the same person I was.”
FUTURE RYDER CUP CAPTAIN?
“I would hope my experience will help. It’s harder in a given week. I suppose there are pearls of wisdom you can give maybe during the year. But you’ve got some pretty hot players the week of the Ryder Cup who’ve played well that year. So generally, you’re just letting them at it. But if I see guys the odd time around the locker room, I’d be quite happy to chat with people about where their head’s at, things like that. “
NO MORE SECRETS.
“Twenty years ago, if I thought I had an idea, I’d keep it myself. It was a secret. Now, I don’t believe in that. I’ll tell anybody anything, share anything. It’s up to them to do what they will with it. It’s amazing how you mellow out over time.”
IF HE HAD A DO-OVER.
“I wouldn’t be so open. I got myself pigeon-holed into somebody who kept changing from who I was in 2008. But I stayed the same person I was in 2008. When I won in Carnoustie, I played with a draw. When I won in Birkdale, I played with a fade. I was always moving. My game has always been like that. But it’s more hassle than it’s worth. I’m sorry I dug that hole for myself and I got pigeon-holed like that. It’s a long way from who I am.”
THE FUN TIMES HAVE SHIFTED.
“I have a terrible time on the golf course compared to what I would have had years ago because it’s frustrating. I have more fun off the golf course than I did six years ago. I would’ve been far more stressed off the golf course six years ago. Now, I’m more stressed on the golf course because I’m not performing.”
ONLY ABOUT WINNING.
“I hear guys come along and they’d be telling you that they finished seventh in this tournament, in this major. I have no idea how I performed in the majors, what position I finished in. Last year at The Open, I don’t even know where I finished. All I know is I had a chance to win and that’s all I care about. I want to have a chance to win and I want to win. I get value out of trying to win, but I don’t get any value out of anything else. It doesn’t do anything for me if I finish eighth. It’s not a bad performance, but it isn’t going to change my record, is it?”
THE HONDA BUZZ.
“What gave me a great buzz is I played well under pressure. Lovely. It was exciting to play well under pressure. Loved that. Loved the idea that I got a chance. That does me a world of good and it keeps me going. It would be a lot worse if I was getting those chances and blowing them, but I’m actually getting better if I do get myself in that position.”
RETIREMENT? NOT YET.
“I love the game of golf. What’s not to love? This is just the greatest thing ever. This IS retirement. Put it like this – the rest of the working world would love to retire doing what I’m doing. It would be good if I took that attitude and laid off myself a little bit. But I’m loving what I’m doing. I’m fascinated by it. I love being out here playing.”
“The only thing that can change my C.V. at the end of the day, when they wheel me out somewhere at 80 years of age and they announce me into the oratory is when they say, ‘Padraig Harrington, five-time major winner.’ That would be different. But it’s going to be very hard for me to make that huge step. I’ve overachieved at three.”