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The Swing Whisperer: Padraig Harrington and the Man that Made Him

Bob Torrance
Chris Close
Torrance spends most of his days grooming swings at the Inverclyde practice range in Scotland.

Sam Torrance announced via Twitter on July 18 that his father Bob had passed away in his sleep at age 82. The following profile of the elder Torrance appeared in the August 2009, issue of Golf Magazine.

At the eight-stall practice range at the inverclyde sports centre in southwest Scotland, school is in session. Old school, that is. The mats are worn, the wooden dividers are splattered with mud, and the balls — well, golfers must supply their own. There are no pickers roaming the range, no heaters, no demo days, no cameras propped on tripods. On the worst winter days — and there are plenty — fierce gales whip off the Firth of Clyde, rain lashes sideways and the biting cold leaves Padraig Harrington pining for lemon sole and warm apple pie.

Yes, that Padraig Harrington. When he's not playing a tournament or tending to the sundry other duties heaped upon an affable three-time major champion with a wife and two kids, Harrington invests much of his time beating balls at this bare-boned facility in the cozy seaside town of Largs. When his ball bag's empty, Harrington strolls out onto the sloping range and gathers his Titleists by hand, using the respite to reflect on the state of his swing. He then returns to the hitting bays, rinses the balls in a metal sink and repeats the ritual again, and again, often until dusk. It's difficult to fathom an elite player grinding away at such a meager establishment, especially in this era of launch monitors and biomechanics and millionaire pros honing their tilt-and-stack swings at sun-splashed golf factories. But Harrington has a simple explanation. "Bob Torrance," he says. "If Bob wasn't there, I wouldn't be there."

Torrance, 77, is the de facto dean of instruction at Inverclyde, although he would never agree to such a stately title. "Bob" fits him just fine. His no-frills, no-nonsense style and uncanny eye for swing mechanics are legendary in European golf circles. So, too, is his impenetrable Ayrshire brogue. And so, too, are the Torrance tales barely fit for print, like the time he told a student to toughen up his blistered hands by urinating on them. "I'm telling you," Torrance growls, "we used to do that when we were boys." In the early '90s Torrance helped guide Ian Woosnam to No. 1 in the world. Seve Ballesteros, David Feherty and Sir Sean Connery have also enlisted his services. But none of Torrance's pupils has reaped such staggering gains from such a dramatic makeover as Harrington. "It's the pinnacle of Dad's career, really," says Bob's son Sam, an eight-time Ryder Cupper and a legend in his own right.

Harrington and Torrance's partnership began 11 years ago, but it has crescendoed in the last two seasons with the Irishman's consecutive British Open wins, his PGA title and his coronation as the world's best player during the Tiger-less summer of 2008. But this isn't the story of Harrington's journey; it's the tale of the man who rode shotgun, barking directions and encouragement at every turn. "I've been up at Inverclyde on the worst days, when there's snow on the ground, when there's hailstorms, when there's close to hurricane-force winds," Harrington says. "You wouldn't let your dog out in it, but when a man in his seventies is prepared to go out in it, you get right out there with him." And when you do get out there, you'd be wise to do as you're told.

It's an unusual March morning at Invercylde: warm, sunny, and so clear that you can see the church steeples that anchor the Largs skyline and Great Cumbrae Island beyond them. It's a perfect day for practice. Then again, Torrance would say, what day isn't? The bays are jammed with golfers of varying ages, ability and promise — "the boys," as Torrance calls them. Most are up here at least a few days a week, some nearly every day, and all are in polished shoes and crisply ironed pants per Torrance's strict dress code. They are dogged workers and devout Torrance disciples, no surprise given he teaches them for nothing. "He gives us nine hours of coaching and we give him a strawberry tart," says Colin Robinson, a lanky 17-year-old who caught Torrance's eye a couple of years ago when the teenager was practicing in the rain. Torrance has since helped Robinson lower his handicap from 7.9 to 1.9.

Torrance teaches the boys pro bono because he wants to, and because he can. He makes a tidy living off his Tour pro clientele and an endorsement deal with Titleist, and frankly, when it comes to cost of living, Largs isn't Lake Nona. Which isn't to say the boys aren't grateful. "Bob's the most giving man I've ever known," says Eddie Thomson, 38, a postman turned mini tour pro and a standout in Torrance's Inverclyde stable. "He'd give you the shirt off his back if he thought it would help your golf swing."

Torrance, ever-present cigarette in one hand, coffee-machine cappuccino in the other, is sitting on a red plastic chair critiquing Thomson as he works on rotating his left wrist through impact. The old pro has cropped gray hair and a loveable face that droops like a bloodhound's. He's in a complimentary mood. "That's your best swing there," Torrance says — or at least that's what it sounded like he said. You don't need a translator to understand Torrance, you need a muffler. His brogue is so full of bass and gravel, it sounds like someone is kick-starting a Harley. In 2008, Torrance gave Fred Couples a lesson. "I don't know what he said," Couples told Bob's wife, June, "but it sounded good." When Torrance was interviewed on American TV during a Ryder Cup years ago, the network ran subtitles. "It's like listening to the guy from Khazikstan in the United Nations building," says Peter Jacobsen, a seven-time PGA Tour winner who has worked with Torrance. "You get every third or fourth word."

Still, Torrance's instruction comes through loud and clear. Often it begins with the cold truth — that a player's swing is rubbish. Then he likes to impart a quick fix to jolt his pupil's confidence. Then, if the player's willing to work like a coal miner, Torrance will duck his head under the hood and begin his repairs. His guiding principle, if he has one, is that the swing begins in the legs. "They're the generators," he says. But other than that, he's not a theory teacher. "He's a fundamental teacher," Jacobsen says. "He talks about footwork, balance, rhythm." Sam Torrance has been taking advice from his dad for more than 50 years. "He has no specific approach, like 'You must do this,' " Sam says. "He'll look at a player, he'll see what's wrong and he'll fix it."

Or he'll see what's right and not do a thing. "Rory McIlroy asked me for a lesson last year," says Torrance, his eyes still glued to Thomson. "I said, 'Don't touch it. Leave it aloooone.' " McIlroy's no natural, however — at least not according to Torrance. "There's no such thing as natural ability, because golf's an unnatural game," Torrance says. "Some people have a natural aptitude for the game — Snead had it, Byron Nelson had it. Hogan didn't. He worked for everything he got. If you see Hogan's swing when he was young, it was terrrrrrible."

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