The Swing Whisperer: Padraig Harrington and the Man that Made Him
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."
Torrance's obsession with the golf swing took root at Routenburn Golf Club, a short, hilly track in Largs. He started playing at 16 and realized he had a knack for the game the day he pured a 1-iron from a gnarly lie. "The feeling I got off that..." Torrance can't find the words. "I've been practicing ever since."
By 19, he was scratch. "I played every minute I could get," he says. When Torrance finished school, he took a job at Routenburn, where, when he wasn't mowing grass or rolling greens, he constructed his swing and deconstructed others'. "I studied every golfer known to man," he says. "I tried to learn everything in the golf swing so I had a good idea how you should feel if I was telling you to do certain things. That's how I learned to teach."
He also gleaned knowledge from another golfer who found enlightenment in the dirt, Ben Hogan. From the moment Torrance first saw Hogan play, at the 1953 British Open, he was hooked on the Hawk. (He still is. You can't talk golf with Torrance for more than five minutes without him referencing Hogan, and there are photographs of the nine-time major winner all over Torrance's home.) June eventually convinced Bob to write his idol a letter, and to Bob's delight Hogan promptly replied. "I had said in the letter, 'It's my life's dream to meet you,' " Torrance says. "And he said in his letter, 'I would like to meet you, too.' We were off on the next jet."
The Hogans entertained Bob and June for three days at their home in Ft. Worth, Texas. "It was a big experience for Robert," June says. "He could hardly speak." Hogan and Torrance traded stories over lunch at Hogan's fabled club, Shady Oaks, but the highlight came when Hogan politely asked June to give him and her husband a moment alone. When June obliged, Hogan leaned in and said, "Bob, I'm going to teach you the secret of the game."
"Aye, he did," Torrance says now.
Torrance taps his head.
"It's in here," he says gravely.
Whatever the secret, it didn't transform Torrance's own game. The Scotsman played professionally, once qualifying for the British Open, but his favorite post-round activity eventually took its toll. "Not heavy drinking," Torrance says. "Well, it was heavy drinking, but not if you could handle it. The pros in those days, they drunk a lot. Fred Daly, Christy O'Connor Sr. Nicklaus liked to drink. Palmer liked to drink. They all liked to drink. Gary Player's not a drinking man. He'd drink, but he's not a 'drinking man,' if you know what I mean."
Not like Torrance, who for many years says he downed two bottles of whiskey a day. Surely it was hard to play golf under such heavy influence? Torrance unleashes a throaty laugh. "It was hard to see!" (He says he has since kicked the habit and has been dry for 13 years.)
When his own game soured, Torrance focused on teaching, in particular his son Sam, who by age 9 was playing four rounds a day. "He taught me to hit it as far as I could at a very early age and we'd straighten it out later," Sam says. "I'm still waiting for him to straighten it out." Sam didn't share his father's love of 9-to-5 days on the range, preferring instead to fire at flagsticks on the course. "Sam never practiced as much as Robert wanted him to," June says. "He would play golf at the turn of a hat, but he wouldn't practice."
Still, Sam soared. He joined the European Tour at 17 and went on to win 21 times, with his dad always keeping close tabs. "I remember coming back from the  Spanish Open, having won, and he told me, 'Your swing's crap. You need to practice,' " Sam says. "And he was 100 percent right. My swing wasn't good. When you've got someone who loves you and is going to be honest with you and is a great teacher, you can't ask for more."
Padraig Harrington wanted more. In 1998, he was a nice player with a wicked short game but just one European Tour win to show for it. "I was looking for somebody who could develop my long game," he recalls. "And that's exactly what Bob had done with a number of players — all his players were good ballstrikers."
The pair first hooked up at Loch Lomond, where Torrance made a stinging diagnosis: Harrington's swing would never resemble Hogan's. "But then Bob says, 'You're going to have to hit the ball more like Sam Snead,' " Harrington recalls. "So he took it away in one hand and then gave back in the next sentence." If Torrance didn't love Harrington's swing, he was taken by the Irishman's resolve. "Padraig will work in any weather, and so will Robert," June says. "I said to Robert, 'I think you've finally got what you've been waiting for.' "
Long, hardworking days at Inverclyde ensued, each man inspiring the other. Harrington became such a Largs regular that the Torrances gave him his own bedroom, and June grew accustomed to stuffing him with two of her specialties: lemon sole and apple pie. "We changed everything — everything," Torrance says. "We started with his feet and leg action, then his address position, his shoulder plane, the top of the swing, the start of the downswing. We changed Padraig from a hands and arms player to a body and legs player." Paul McGinley, another Torrance pupil, once told Harrington he'd seen only one other golfer who'd so radically altered his swing: Nick Faldo.
"Padraig was over here every other week and in the winter we spent eight, nine hours a day up there," Torrance continues. "He'd go away and work on it for a fortnight and then he'd come back." Torrance monitored Harrington's progress the old-fashioned way: with the naked eye. "He doesn't need a video to tell him what's happening," Harrington says. "You know these biomechanical analysis machines? I've been on those. He teaches exactly what the computer would say. Exactly. It's 100 percent."
The wins started piling up — eight between 2000 and 2004. In 2005, he won twice on the PGA Tour and a year later bagged his first Order of Merit. His improved ballstriking, he says, was the keystone. "In 1998, I played at Bay Hill," he recalls. "I made the cut but I looked at the course and said, 'I could never win here. This course is far too tough.' I played Bay Hill this year , and I'm thinking, 'Ooh, this suits me. It's exactly the type of course I want to be on.' That's how much my swing has changed."
Paddy 2.0 took center stage in the climactic moments of the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie. He looked anything but confident. With the Claret Jug in the balance on the 72nd hole, Harrington dunked two balls in the Barry Burn and seemed fated to join Jean van de Velde in Open infamy. Then Sergio Garcia bogeyed 18, sending the pair to a three-hole playoff. "I would say Padraig got a break there," Torrance says. "But Padraig made the best of his breaks. The head wasn't down. He went to the locker room to wait, and when he came out, he was a new man. He was just as fresh as paint, his eyes were as clear as a bell, and I said to June, 'He's going to win this.' "
Harrington went on to win two more majors the next summer, both in gritty fashion, though through the first half of 2009 he hasn't shown that world-dominating form. His scoring average (71.58) is nearly a stroke higher than it was in '08, and he's lost 10 yards off his drives. Rumors that Harrington is once again overhauling his swing are "rubbish," Torrance says. But in late May, Harrington was still tinkering, honing the transition between his backswing and downswing and seeking a more penetrating ball flight.
The Irishman says he's not concerned about his discouraging stats. "I just look at being able to hit the shots I want to hit. That's where it is for me," he says. "You've got to be happy with how you're striking the golf ball and ultimately how you feel about how you're striking the golf ball. That's why you go out there and practice so much."
And that's why he sticks with Torrance — through wind and rain and snow and worse. "Padraig could pack his bags and go somewhere warm for the winter. He's wealthy enough that he could do it," Torrance says. "But he won't go practicing unless I'm there. You know what they say: you can't brush your hair without a mirror."