About a dozen years ago, Padraig Harrington was watching a Champions Tour event when Arnold Palmer gave a post-round interview. "He came off the course absolutely brimming, grinning ear-to-ear," Harrington recalls. "He said he'd found the secret -- at 70! I thought, 'I want to be that man. I want to be 70 and loving golf and getting better.' "
And that's why Harrington changes his swing more often than a politician changes his mind. For the Irishman, seeking the secret is the secret. "I see myself as a kid out there thinking, 'I'll find the secret every day.' Change is what I do. It's who I am." Who he is, incidentally, is a three-time major winner, with 19 combined PGA and European tour titles, who hasn't claimed a trophy in the U.S. or Europe since the 2008 PGA Championship. What's more, last year Harrington failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1997. Not that the 41-year-old seems worried. Golf Magazine caught up with him at his home in suburban Dublin, where a relaxed Harrington, coming off a missed-cut at the Masters, defended his swing changes, explained why he's toying with anchored putting, and revealed the main reason he's not the player he used to be.
The last time the Open Championship came to Muirfield, in 2002, you finished one stroke out of the playoff that Ernie Els won. How does Muirfield stack up against the other Open venues?
It's one of the players' favorite venues because it's a strong but fair test. There are fewer bad bounces. The fairways are flatter. It's a solid, what-you-see-is-what-you-get course. It's not like Royal St. George's, which gets so hard that tee shots can run 80 yards. It's the least links-like Open course because it's the most just.
Can a hot player just show up and win a British Open, or does it demand weeks of preparation playing links courses in British Open weather?
Yes, a hot player can show up and win, especially at Muirfield, which doesn't require massive amounts of local knowledge. But the best scenario is to be a hot player who comes over early to get accustomed to links courses. Because even I, who grew up playing links courses, have to adjust after playing on parkland courses.
What takes the most adjustment?
It's startling the way the ball reacts in links golf versus parkland. The ball flies lower. The weather affects the ball so much more. A 10 mph wind on a parkland course is not a big deal, but 10 mph on a links can affect the flight of your ball by 20, 30 yards. The air is heavier. There's nothing protecting the course from the wind. Everything is magnified.
What memories most stand out when you think back to Carnoustie in 2007, your first major win?
It's funny. Last Christmas, I watched highlights from that Open for the first time since 2007. It's amazing how you perceive things differently than how they happened. I thought the putt I made to win [on the fourth playoff hole] was a tap-in, but it was every bit of three feet. Yet I brushed it in like it was a foot.
Near-disaster almost kept you out of the playoff. With a one-stroke lead on the 72nd hole, you hit both your drive and your approach into Barry Burn.
That was my worst hole of the week, but the tee shot didn't bother me. Anyone can hit a bad tee shot, especially on No. 18 at Carnoustie, the toughest hole in golf. But after I hit my approach shot in the water, I thought I'd lost. I'd choked. It was over. I was utterly embarrassed. I'd let everyone down. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. But my caddie [Ronan Flood] talked me through it.
What did he say?
[Laughs] He used every cliché in the book: "It's not over yet…One shot at a time…Let's just finish and see where we are…" A barrage of statements. He was talking as we walked toward the green. For the first 50 yards I wanted to throttle him. For the second 50 yards I was listening. And for the last 50 yards I was believing him. He helped me get back in the zone. It was amazing. You never get back in the zone after doing what I did on that hole. Yet I did.
His pep talk helped you hit a good pitch to get up and down and salvage double-bogey, good enough for a playoff with Sergio.
Right, and I hit that pitch like I was a kid showing off. Like, "Watch this, lads." After hitting two in the water! He helped me put those water shots behind me. At a corporate outing months later, I was saying to the people, "I thought I'd lost the Open, but my caddie believed in me." Ronan looked at me and said, "I thought you'd lost the bloody Open, too -- I was just doing my job!"
Your playoff with Sergio didn't seem all that warm and fuzzy. And memorable exchanges with him?
We didn't have a lot to say. The most memorable exchange was no exchange.
When did it sink in that you were a major champion?
In the middle of the night that night, I woke up, and the Open trophy was there on a table at the end of the bed. I woke up my wife and said, "Look! There's the trophy. It wasn't a dream." And she said, "Just go back to sleep."
Tiger played in that British Open, but injuries kept him out of the 2008 British and '08 PGA Championship, both of which you won. Does it bother you that he wasn't there for two of your three major wins?
No. Not in the least.
Wouldn't it have been more special to win those titles with the World No. 1 in the field?
It doesn't worry me. First off, I'm the only one who has a better stroke record than Tiger when playing with him -- at least as of a couple of years ago. I've beaten him when it wasn't significant, and he beat me down the stretch at Firestone [in 2009]. Whether or not he's in the field, you still have to beat the best guys that week. I'm only interested in results. Wins. Hard facts. I still had to beat 156 guys who aren't gonna pack and leave if Tiger's not there.
How do you assess Tiger's game today?
I think he passes Jack for 19 major wins. Time is on his side. He's still the best player in the world. He mightn't be as dominant, but look at his last four majors -- in contention in all of them. His game is suited to winning majors, and if he plays great, he definitely wins. The difference today is that his "B" game doesn't win majors anymore. Other players have improved.