Long before Padraig Harrington put three major championship trophies on his mantle — two claret jugs, one Wanamaker — he was among the game's most insightful personalities. He always gave deep, thoughtful answers to any question presented to him — about the golf swing, the mental game, putting, golf-course architecture, geopolitics. Paddy could make comfortable conversation at any water cooler.
"As you know, I talk too much," Harrington once said. "It's an Irish trait."
Two weeks ago at the Honda Classic, Harrington was in the mood again. He was standing on the large practice green behind the 18th hole, speaking of his love for testing himself on the hardest golf courses in the world. He was relishing the battle at PGA National, too, the bogeys notwithstanding.
"The best players in the world always want to play the hardest courses," said Harrington, whose trio of majors came at Carnoustie, Birkdale and Oakland Hills. "And this is a golf course that asks a lot of big questions."
On Thursday at the Transitions Championship, at another track that asks a lot of big questions, Harrington answered with a course-record 10-under-par 61 on the difficult Copperhead course.
For Harrington, who shot a final-round 79 at PGA National, this was either a bolt from the blue or an indication that a game incessantly under repair may be rounding into form again.
The only thing Harrington does better than talk is tinker. He isn't happy unless he is breaking his swing down and building it back up.
When he won three majors over the summers of 2007 and 2008, outsiders wondered if, at last, the Harrington overhauls were a thing of the past.
The thing was, Harrington was making alterations even while he was winning majors.
"When I won in Carnoustie I was playing with a draw," he said earlier this year. "When I won in Birkdale, I was trying to play with a fade. I continually changed. But after 2008 I talked about it. I did what I normally do: I talked. I think it's interesting what I'm doing and I hope other people think it's interesting. Maybe it's my ego, but I like to tell people. But the difference is there were more people listening."
At age 40, Harrington has entered the stage of life when not every question is about his golf swing. Without a victory on the PGA Tour or European Tour since winning the 2008 PGA Championship, the queries are often more about the big picture. "Tell us about this renaissance in Irish golf" or "How much would you like to be a future European Ryder Cup captain?" Harrington gives thoughtful responses to these questions as well, but his eyes say that he's far from finished.
Though he has not been winning, he has not been idle. After a long and successful union with swing coach Bob Torrance, Harrington last summer switched to Pete Cowen, whose client list includes Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood. Cowen, a former European Tour player, took golf lessons from Gardner Dickinson, who took lessons from Ben Hogan.
Harrington eats that kind of golf history up. As for swing theory, Harrington says there isn't too much.
"We're working on one thing, and it's pretty clear," Harrington said. "I'm just trying to keep my shoulders connected more, trying to keep my shoulders packed, keep my scapulas [shoulder blades] in place. I used to get shoulder injuries so it kind of makes a lot of sense — my right scapula used to lift a little bit in the backswing. [I'm trying] to keep my shoulders down all throughout my golf swing and not letting them rise up. There's a bit more to Pete's coaching, but that's essentially what every lesson has been."
Cowen believes in "matching the movements" in the golf swing, getting the wrists, elbows and shoulders working in unison. Even at his most dominant, Harrington's ball-striking could come and go, but his grit, his hunger to understand the golf swing, and his love of digging balls out of driving-range dirt has long rivaled Vijay Singh.
Even for all of his swing changes, Harrington says he has never stood on a golf course with a swing thought.
"I look at where I want to go and I hit it — nothing else," he said.
After a few quiet years and endless introspection, Harrington may be finding it again.