Padraig Harrington has won the last two British Open Championships.
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images
By Damon Hack
Thursday, July 16, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland — Padraig Harrington is everywhere here — grinning on a billboard at Glasgow Airport, hoisting the claret jug on a Royal & Ancient media guide, standing by Birkdale's rolling final green on the cover of a British Open yearbook.

In every instance, he is the picture of the complete golfer, a man at the height of his powers. Tamer of Carnoustie in '07. Master of Birkdale '08.

With the British Open set to start at Turnberry, though, that man is gone.

"I could only be hopeful, rather than expectant, to put in a good performance this week," the 37-year-old Harrington said Tuesday.

Of all the storylines bubbling along the craggy shoreline of Scotland's west coast, Harrington's loss of form remains an intriguing case study. Despite winning three of six major championships in a 13-month period, including the 2008 PGA Championship, Harrington set out on the well-worn path taken by pros and duffers alike. He wanted to improve his swing.

Golf is rife with stories of players who improved and those who disappeared. Tiger Woods took apart his swing following a 12-shot victory at the 1997 Masters, went major-less in 1998, and then dominated in 1999-2000. Ian Baker-Finch won the 1991 British Open, immediately felt pressure to get better, changed his swing, and lost his confidence and his game.

For Harrington, the swing change sounds simple enough. He wanted to improve his position at impact.

"Through that," Harrington explained, "a combination of other things turned up. Golf is always, for me, a juggling act of keeping all the balls in the air and keeping everything working together. I've obviously concentrated on one ball a lot and a few of the others have fallen on the ground, and it's a question of picking them up and getting them all together again."

As sometimes happens, Harrington's full-swing struggles have seeped into other parts of his game. He's ranked 137th in putting (1.793 putts per green), 182nd in driving accuracy (52.8 percent of fairways hit) and 182nd in greens in regulation (60.06 percent). The result? No top 10s on the PGA Tour this year, one top 10 on the European Tour, and three consecutive missed cuts on each tour heading into Turnberry.

"My short game is pretty poor," he said.

Last month, at the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, Harrington shot 76-76 playing with Woods, one of the few players who can relate to making a swing change and then struggling beneath the large glare of the media.

"The hard part is doing it in front of everyone," Woods said Tuesday. "I've been through it before. Sometimes it can be a little difficult because you get questioned quite a bit. But you have to understand the big picture for yourself."

No one has gone through the scrutiny Woods has. He was hammered for changing his swing after his blowout Masters win, and then won four consecutive majors from the 2000 United States Open through the 2001 Masters. He was criticized for leaving swing coach Butch Harmon for Hank Haney, a sentiment that has not altogether quieted despite winning six of his 14 majors under Haney's tutelage.

"We're all trying to get better, we're all making changes," Woods said. "The game is fluid. It's always evolving. You're trying to make adjustments here and there to try to get yourself to the next level."

To many people, though, Harrington was already at the next level. Before breaking through for his first PGA Tour win at the 2005 Honda Classic, Harrington was one of golf's nearly men, racking up fistfuls of runner-up finishes. When he reeled in three majors, Harrington had arrived, at least in the public view. A golfer's mind, though, is different.

"You get to a certain point, and you like to tear it apart and see how it works and put it back better," Harrington said. "I definitely have learned a lot about my golf swing this year, and I feel like it will improve. I don't know if I wanted to have a better understanding, but I just wanted to have a better golf swing."

The swing that decked Sergio Garcia at Carnoustie and Oakland Hills, and held off Greg Norman and Ian Poulter at Birkdale, was working. But just as the golfer who breaks 90 searches for the road to 80, so does the golfer who shoots 32 on the back nine at Birkdale (as Harrington did) wonder why it wasn't a 31.

Harrington is on that journey now, searching for comfort amid stiff headwinds.

"If somebody could push The Open [ahead] a couple of weeks, I'd be delighted," he said. "I don't have that option. We'll go with whatever we have Thursday afternoon."

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