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Always searching for answers, Padraig Harrington thinks his turnaround is near

Padraig Harrington
Kohjiro Kinno/SI
Harrington is a three-time major winner, but fell out of the Top 100 of the World Ranking for the first time in the 21st century last season. His 27th-place finish at Pebble Beach was Harrington's best showing in eight months.

Padraig Harrington is not a golfer, he's a seeker. He has dedicated his life to knowing the unknowable and mastering the impossible. He dreams not of winning tournaments—though, once in a while, that would be nice—but of doing something much more difficult: achieving his own potential. His quest transcends swing mechanics and strays into metaphysics. "It's like the yin and the yang," he said last week at Pebble Beach, tucking into a bowl of chili in the Tap Room. "You have to remain in constant motion just to stay in the same place. Everything is in a state of constant flux. Acknowledging that, it keeps you moving. It keeps you excited. I've just spent two hours at the range hitting nothing but drivers, full stop. A fellow like you comes along and asks if I've discovered the secret. The secret is, there is no secret. The secret is in the search." Here Harrington lets out a boyish giggle. "All that said, I'm hopeful that someday I'm going to find the secret."

Harrington is 42. If he were inclined to boast, which he's not, he would mention his three major championships, the 28 worldwide victories, the European tour's Order of Merit in 2006 and the four Ryder Cup victories he has been a part of. He is happily married to his childhood sweetheart, and they have two healthy sons. He has more money than he can spend. Yet the search continues. "You know what, when I'm 80, if they invite me out to some super seniors event and I have to be rolled out there in a wheelchair, I'll turn up," he says. "I like golf. I like playing. I don't like practicing, but I like what I get from practicing. The feeling of a perfectly struck shot? It's just as thrilling now as it has ever been."

Harrington's love affair with golf has become unrequited. The 2013 season was one of the worst of his career, and near the end of the year he dropped out of the top 100 in the World Ranking for the first time since we entered the 21st century. He hasn't won since 2010 at something called the Iskandar Johor Open, in Malaysia. The last real tournament he won was the 2008 PGA Championship, his third major championship victory in a span of 13 months. He had reached the mountaintop, but he couldn't help but wonder about the view from a distant peak.

Even after winning that PGA and back-to-back British Opens, he continued to tinker with his swing, as he always had. In July 2011 he split from his guru of 15 years, Bob Torrance. The victories stopped coming, but Harrington insisted he was getting better all the time. Eventually, he seemed to be detached from reality. When Harrington told an Irish radio show in January 2012 that he was working on his tongue position during his swing—"To relax my jaw, I put the tongue at the top of my mouth. I used to bite it"—well, that did it. He had gone over the brink of reason, and it would have surprised no one had he cut off his own ear with a 1-iron. After piling up those majors, why didn't Harrington stop messing about and simply keep doing what he was doing? "That would have been impossible," he says. "That's not how I got there. That's probably the key.

His careerlong mental coach, Bob Rotella, puts it another way: "A lot of guys are afraid to try new things, so they never get better. Or they stay the same while everyone else gets better, so in reality they're getting worse. When you try new things, you end up going backward for a while—it takes a lot of patience and persistence to keep sticking with it because you don't always know when the payoff will come. And if the payoff hasn't come, when do you give up and try something else? Risk is part of the process. Padraig has always been absolutely fearless about trying to get better.

Harrington's break from the avuncular Torrance was the biggest gamble of his career. Harrington loved him like a father—still does, in fact—but Torrance, now 82, was loath to leave his cottage in Largs, Scotland, and his pupil felt he needed more attention at tournament sites. Harrington enlisted long-time friend Pete Cowen, a soft-spoken English gent who has a similar intellectual curiosity. Despite missing seven cuts in 17 Tour events and finishing no better than ninth (at his first start of the year), the ever-buoyant Harrington believes he made progress in 2013. "Last year I tightened up my swing a lot," he says. "I reduced my foot movement, curtailed my hip turn so I made a tighter, shorter coil, and I've hit the ball very solid and very efficiently."

It is his vaunted short game that is now holding him back. To hear Harrington tell it, he has yet to recover from the new grooves that were mandated by golf's ruling bodies beginning on Jan. 1, 2010. An obsessive-compulsive about his equipment, Harrington used to travel with two sets of irons—one with square grooves, one with V-grooves. In tournaments he used a mixed set of irons and wedges, and out of the rough his club selection was predicated by which kind of grooves he wanted for a particular lie. He is still struggling to adjust to having to play only the V-grooves, which impart less spin. "I'm very frustrated when I chip now, whereas it was the best part of my game," Harrington says.

Cowen believes his pupil's struggles are no longer an issue of equipment or technique but rather his fastidious nature. "It's affected his confidence massively," he says. "There's a certain thing where if he saw his ball go through a certain window in the air, he'd know everything is all right. With these grooves the ball doesn't always come out exactly as you'd like it to, and Padraig finds that hard to accept."

During his second round last week, at Spyglass Hill, Harrington was just short of the green on the par-5 7th hole in two shots. From the rain-soaked rough he faced a chip to a front pin with the green running away from him. It wasn't an easy shot, but he flew his ball all the way to the hole, and it skittered onto the far fringe. He spent the next two or three minutes shaking his head in disgust. He holed the ensuing 20-foot birdie putt but never cracked a smile. Following a 69 that pushed him to 28th, Harrington said of the chip, "I didn't trust it, simple as that. I hit the shot with no conviction." Speaking more generally of his work around the greens, he says, "Everything in the whole of my life I've always worked at, I'll deal with it, I'll succeed—no challenge is too much. I didn't think this would be such a struggle. I'm 80% there, which I'm actually pretty stoked about at the moment."

On Saturday, after playing the front nine of Monterey Peninsula Country Club in 31 strokes, Harrington had sneaked onto the leader board, but he came home in 41 in the gloaming. He finished the tournament in 27th place—his best result since he was 21st at the U.S. Open last June—but remained upbeat. "It's getting closer," he says.

It is this belief that gets him through a daily 40-minute stretching routine and into the gym four times a week for grueling workouts featuring Olympic lifts, kettle bells, medicine balls, a vibration platform and box jumps. Every few weeks, in an effort to further refine his training, he takes a blood test to get a snapshot of his body chemistry.

It's hard to believe, but his desire has only grown," says Harrington's trainer of the last 17 years, Liam Hennessy. "My job is to hold him back. My job is to say no. He'll work himself to death if we let him.

Harrington is sure to be a Ryder Cup captain, and someday he'll give a long, funny speech at his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, but he is not yet ready to be a ceremonial golfer. He's younger than Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson were when they put exclamation points on their careers with unexpected victories at the British Open. "Winning another major won't change my life," Harrington says. "I don't need it to justify the other three. But it will be nice when it happens."

Until then he'll continue his lonely quest in what he calls "the garden," the practice area that's part of the expansive piece of property on which the family lives in Dublin. "I'm seeing a lot of good things all the way through my game," Harrington says, "but the problem for me is if you did this interview last year, I'd have told you the same thing. If you did it two years ago, I would have said, 'Yeah, I'm great.' But this time I really mean it!

This calls to mind something Rotella said: "Padraig's greatest asset is his relentless optimism. The game tries to beat you up, but I have never seen him get down on himself. He loves the game because it's hard. He embraces the struggle.

Even more than his victories, this is ultimately Harrington's legacy. He was so unsure of his prospects as a touring pro that he famously pursued an accounting degree as a backup plan. For all of his success, a mastery of the game remains as elusive as ever. Yet you get the feeling Harrington wouldn't have it any other way.

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