ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Never mind King George, it was the Madness of Padraig Harrington that had people scratching their heads as the Dubliner held court after his bogey-free first-round 65 at the Abu Dhabi Championship. He is just one shot off the lead held by the in-form World No. 23 Charl Schwartzel, who retained his Joburg Open title last week in his South African homeland.
Harrington has always been one of the game’s most obsessive thinkers and tinkerers, tweaking this and that and the other with his game since he was 15. But what he has been up to over his winter break was quite frankly mind-bogglingly barmy. He rattled through a detailed shopping list of all 11, yes 11, changes that he has put into play this week in an attempt to cure his stuttering career. It’s a list that would send any weekend hacker screaming from the driving range to the psychiatrist’s couch.
“We’re going to have to take a while for this,” Harrington said laughing.
You might want to sit down and pour yourself a stiff one. It’s like a variation on the tagline at the start of “Soap” back in the 1980s: “Confused? You will be!”
“First of all, I changed my grips,” Harrington began. “I used to put my grips on 45 degrees open with a reminder. I’ve gone to round grips. I don’t waggle over the ball anymore. I only look up once now. I get it right, I only look up once, instead of twice, or three times.”
Got that? Good, keep up.
“I try to take the club away with my arms more now, and trying to leave my hips behind in the takeaway, and trying to stop squatting in my takeaway,” Harrington continued. “I had to change my plane in the backswing because I don’t have such a big hip turn from address. Quite a significant one was I changed my shoulder turn. I have recurring neck problems so I’m trying to swing my shoulder into my chin now and tuck my chin in more at the top of my backswing. And the downswing, I’m trying to get my hands a little bit lower and keep the heel down a bit.”
Harrington took a breath. There was more.
“There was another one,” he said grinning and trying to remember. “Oh, yeah, try to stabilize my left hip. I can make the swing look OK on video but when I go to play, it’s not quite there.”
There’s no pleasing some people.
“And obviously then I had a knock on effect. I had to change my chipping action and bunker action. I had a good six weeks,” he said to much laughter in the interview room.
Harrington admitted he spent the last 45 minutes of his round trying to convince himself not to go near the range for more tinkering. Now that he’s doing well in the tournament, he said he is just going to leave his swing as it is and try to stay mentally strong. His battle, he said, was to keep the demon swing thoughts out of his head. And therein lies his problem. He thinks too much, but the key is to not think too much.
“I haven’t had a swing thought on the golf course in 14 years,” he said. “But I’ve just spent six weeks with 10 swing thoughts, and it’s very hard not to have any.”
It’s a wonder Harrington doesn’t suffer from a permanent migraine. His swing coach Bob Torrance and his mental coach Bob Rotella must dread hearing the phone ring. But while Harrington’s motto seems to be “If it ain’t broke, DO fix it,” he would have us believe that there is method to his madness.
And Harrington hadn’t finished with his cranial conundrums. He believes he now has a better chance of reaching No. 1 from his position at No. 26 than he did when he climbed to No. 3 in 2008 after winning his second and third major titles at the British Open and the PGA Championship. Go figure.
“When I was third, I probably needed to win three times the points I had to be world No. 1,” Harrington explained. “It’s more of a level playing field at the moment. Lee is comfortably the best player in the world based on consistency. Phil (Mickelson) and Tiger (Woods), when they hit form, are, I wouldn’t say unbeatable, but are pretty much up there. If I win half a dozen times, come the end of the year, I’ll be world No. 1.”
It sounds as if Harrington is perpetually struggling to be content with himself and his game. But, as it often is with this Irishman, the opposite is invariably the truth.
“I’m complicated, but not eccentric,” he said smiling. “I’m the most optimistic person you’ll meet. The day I don’t have something to work on, I probably won’t be as excited to get up in the morning.”
Harrington admitted that he is still a work in progress, and he had one more word of wisdom to share — a quote from his swing guru, Torrance: “The difference between a great player and a good player is a good player can play great when the feeling is upon him; whereas, a great player can play good when he wants to.”
“I’ll leave with you that one,” Harrington said laughing.
In the battle of 2010 major champions, day one bragging rights belonged to Graeme McDowell (U.S. Open). He birdied the final five holes to shoot a six-under-par 66. Martin Kaymer (PGA Championship) carded a 67, and Phil Mickelson (Masters) signed for a 71, one shot ahead of Louis Oosthuizen (British Open). World No. 1 Lee Westwood posted a three-under-par 69.
After his round, Mickelson said he plans to be more aggressive with his putting this season.
“I want to putt with more pace and see if I can roll some longer putts in,” Mickelson said. “I had a lot of putts kind of limp up to the edge. Those are the ones that are upsetting.”
Putting wasn’t the only thing to upset Mickelson’s well-being in the desert. His stomach took a wobble, too. Earlier he took a rolling trip on a round-the-world ocean race yacht. Did he feel sick? “Well, they race for nine months on that boat,” he said. “Nine minutes was plenty for me.”