Padraig Harrington: Self-Aware, Inquisitive and Charming

Padraig Harrington is known for his prolific, thoughtful answers to just about any question you ask him. And because there are so many pearls in his answers, almost all of the following is in his own words:

He is playing in the Waste Management Phoenix Open for the first time ever and he told us why in his media session on Tuesday:

Yeah, there’s no doubt this tournament, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, is a tournament that you have to go and play it sometime in your career, and I’ve looked at it over the years, and it’s never quite fit the schedule but I’ve always wanted to come and see what it’s like in person, so delighted to be here this time. 

I’m looking forward to a nice week on the golf course, and obviously enjoying the week.  I think it is one of those fun weeks in golf, and we do need them in golf.  We need variation.  It can’t all be the same every week, and it’s nice that there is going to be an interesting atmosphere around this event.

By “interesting atmosphere,” he politely refers to the bedlam on each tee shot in the 16th hole coliseum. And there’s something about his lilting Irish brogue that makes it sound even more polite than it was intended. And he went on:

…It’s a great thing when you see golf tournaments that they get a little niche.  It’s very important in this day that all the golf tournaments can’t be the same, and it’s important that each tournament has to find a little niche in the market to try to strive themselves different.  Obviously the Waste Management Phoenix Open has done that with their spectators.  They created a completely unique event in golf, and that’s a great thing.  So that’s why I’m here, because of that.

And then he gave us a sense of every little detail a Tour pro considers in deciding where to play:

Plus I like the — I really do like AT&T [Pebble Beach] and Riviera coming up, Northern Trust Riviera, and I always feel when I get to these events, I always feel like I wish I played a little bit more coming into it, I wish I had one more tournament under my belt.  This year it was an opportunity, and if I played in Dubai, and I was considering playing in Dubai, it was a 20‑hour flight to get into AT&T.  As I’m defending in the pro‑am in the AT&T, I felt a 20‑hour flight was not a great idea.

And then we started opening the Pandora’s box that is Harrington’s game. How was it, he was asked? In his answer, we get to see a fine mind processing all the vagaries to that question:

I wish I knew.  Yeah, I’m quietly confident going forward.  I don’t know exactly what that means for this week, but in the weeks ahead, I’m very comfortable with where things are at.  I felt I played nicely last year.  I think I finished 13th in the stroke average putting badly, so I did quite a bit of work during the winter.  I always do quite a bit of work.  But I focused a little bit more on my putting, and certainly if the first two weeks are anything to go by, it was in good stead.

If I can play, swing and hit the golf ball like I did last year and putt like I did in those two events, things are looking good for me.  You never know, though, but certainly I’m optimistic.  But you’re always optimistic at the start of the year.  It’s all ahead of you at the start of the year.  It’s only when you get halfway through that it sets in.

By “quite a bit of work,” he means tinkering with his swing unafraid of any of the changes he’s making. And always with an eye towards getting the changes from “conscious talk” into the “subconscious:”

…nothing different than in past years.  There was a few things, yes.  I worked on the long game, but probably most of the changes I did in the off‑season were more on routines.  I changed my putting routine and changed a few things around in my putting.  That was probably the biggest thing.  And also did some changes on my long game routine.

It was more to do with the good stuff, I suppose, during the winter.  As I said, I was pretty comfortable with how I hit the golf ball last year, and most of my mistakes I thought were more mental than anything else.  It was a question of doing some work on that.

While I’m happy with where I stand at the moment, it still wouldn’t be bedded in at the moment.  It’s not natural, some of the changes I’ve made.  So there’s still a little bit of conscious talk going on, and that’s why I’m out here weeks like this.  You’re just trying to get a few more tournaments in so that you can make it more — get it more into the subconscious and make it a little easier.

I had what I thought was a really good question. In 2011 I linked to a post at the Irish Golf Desk blog that described the extensive changes he attempted to implement that winter. Not only was it extensive, it was eclectic. So I researched his record over the last five years and noticed that his winnings dropped almost in half to around $800,000 in 2011. And that begged the question of whether he regretted the changes he attempted or had they finally all been implemented and he was now standing in a better place?

That was going to be my question. But I only got the first sentence out about the extensive changes he’d made that year. He politely but ardently cut me short:

I’ve been trying to explain this at home, and I kind of got to grips with it maybe last year.  I’ve made no more changes.  Every year I make changes.  Every year.  It’s what gets me out of my bed.  I’d have given up this game a long time ago if I was just trying to stay still.

Every year I’m trying to figure out how to get better.  Every day I’m trying to figure it out, every year I’m trying to figure it out.  Change in 2007 and 2008 and other years, I was just higher profile and people kept asking me about changes.  I just kept changing; that’s what I do, and I’ll keep changing.  The only thing I know is to keep evolving and keep changing.

Everybody else’s perception of me changed after 2008, and certainly it put a lot of pressure on me when people kept asking questions about changing, changing, changing.  I changed between 2007 and 2008.  I won in 2007 hitting a draw all the time, I won in 2008 hitting a fade predominantly.  I make big changes all the time.

This year I started working with some eye people during the winter, last year I started working with Dave Alred [“world beating performance coach”].  Every year — I’ll find something between now and the end of the season to change during the off period.  I won’t necessarily do it in season, but I’ll find something this year that I think, you know what, I could be a bit better at that, and I’ll go and work on it.

You know, I wouldn’t say monumental — like I did change coaches about 18 months ago to Pete Cowan [most prominent European golf coach], that was a big change, but it fit in nicely.  The change when I went to Bob Torrance [his previous coach] in ’99, I went from 8th in the Order of Merit to 30‑something that year, I did take a big step forwards.

Bear in mind when I turned pro in ’96, all I ever did as an amateur is hit a pull‑cut off the tee, and I was quite short.  By the time I made it through Tour school, they had an orientation week on the European Tour in January, and from January to the tournament, maybe a month later, I went from hitting a pull‑cut to hitting a big huge draw and hit it about 40 yards further and was really happy.  I hit a big sling‑hook.  That’s just who I am.  I’ll keep evolving and try to find something new.

The good thing with this winter is maybe some of the things I was working on this winter, because I was more comfortable with my golf swing last year, the things I worked on this winter probably a bit more constructive in terms of getting value out of them, as in I spent a lot of time on my putting, and I spent a good bit of time on my routines, as well.

As a result of working with the eye specialists he mentioned, he showed up wearing glasses and told us why, even though his eyesight is 20/20:

It’s kind of the way these days — you know, you’re looking for specialists in every area of the game, whether it’s short game specialists, putting, long game coach, psychology, everything is par for the modern game, and this is just another — I suppose another little addition.  We’ll wait and see how it goes…

Well, I lost my confidence in reading the greens essentially.  So it was pretty easy to figure out that it was my eyesight that was giving me — I really did lose my confidence last year.  That was essentially it.  I second‑guessed a lot of reads, and ultimately then hit a lot of tentative putts.  I spent a good bit of the season working on my putting stroke, trying to fix the tentative putts, but the tentative putts were really coming from just my lack of commitment and doubt of my reading of the greens rather than anything else…

This was a tour de force exposition on the value of reading his own putts rather than letting his caddie, Ronan Flood, do it:

If you see me ask Ronan to read a putt, it’s not a good sign [laughter].  He actually had laser surgery during the winter.  He was really blind before that.  Now he’s got good eyesight.

But it doesn’t matter — the problem I will ask my caddie to read a putt if  — we average once a round, but it means I have doubted the read, and essentially anybody — the best way to read a putt is get in there, read it and believe in it, as Bob Rotella [renowned sports psychologist] — it’s far more important to be committed to your line than to be right, and when you ask somebody else for instruction on reading the greens, their pace — everything they do, as much as Ronan, he can help, it’s just not a good sign when you start relying on your caddie.  You’re really not taking responsibility in that situation for what you see.

Yes, once in a blue moon, but it’s not a good day when you start asking your caddie.  As I said, you’re abdicating your responsibility.  We’re professional golfers; we should know what we’re doing at this stage.  Yes, I will ask him once or twice when I get distracted or lose my way I will ask him, but not as a regular deal.

You guys don’t play snooker, but it’s like snooker; nobody can tell you the shot to hit, you have to see it.  It’s always second best when you’re asking somebody else.  The absolute best way is to have 100 percent confidence.  If you have 100 percent confidence in your caddie, maybe that’s — I suppose I do, but at the end of the day, his perception of a firm putt right lip or an easy putt outside the hole, we all see things a little bit different.  So best thing is to trust your own reading of the greens and be able to commit to it and go with it, which I was sorely lacking last year.  I was really bad last year.  I was just so bad.

And finally, I got a chance to back-door my original question that he truncated for me by asking it in a different way and he rose to the occasion brilliantly. I asked, “What’s your measure of a good year, and have you ever gotten to the point in your career where you got worried about a year?”

No.  You know, winning is the ultimate measure, but there are secondary goals, playing well, playing consistent, playing solid, getting yourself in contention a lot, because winning is obviously a result, and sometimes you can do everything right and not quite get there.

But there’s no doubt, in terms of outside pressure and people — outside judgment, most people would judge you purely based on whether you won or not, so in that sense, you could miss nine cuts and win a tournament, and it goes — if I — hopefully not, but if I miss — say I play 20 times on the Tour over here and I miss 18 cuts and win twice, I’ll have 18 Friday evenings where I’ll be a sorry person to be having dinner with.  I’ll have two great weeks.  So in terms of the year, I’ll have 18 lows and two highs, which would be pretty miserable.  But in two years’ time, all I’ll remember is the two wins, and my record will remember the two wins.

As much as we try, we spend all our time trying to be consistent, it’s the inconsistent wins that are probably the most important thing.  Yeah, I would put down wins — especially for me, as well, like when I finish up, they will always go for me at the moment, well, he won three majors.  Hopefully when I finish up they won’t say he won three majors.  He won eight majors.  (Laughter.)  And he won 40 events.

So my CV will always start with that, so that’s — it won’t go down, he made 20 cuts in 2013 or something like that, as much as it’s a measure of consistency.  It’s not a long‑term measure of us.  Winning is the most important thing.

This is the longest post I’ve ever done and it’s really only half of what he said. But in what I’ve selected, I think I’ve captured how his mind works; his intelligence, his curiosity, his willingness to jump off a cliff to learn something new.

But as important, I hope I’ve captured his playful, beguiling charm, because I would not have done justice to him otherwise.

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2 Responses to Padraig Harrington: Self-Aware, Inquisitive and Charming

  1. Pete cowen experiment has been a disaster along with Alred,not sure if he should see Bob Torrence again but should have a guy like Butch Harmon take a look at his swing.Butch isn’t a technical guy and his approach should free Paddy up.Bottom line is Paddy complains about missed putts but he’s never close enough to the hole on his approach shots which is killing him.

    • Bill Rand says:

      You make good points, Brian, but the only one who knows for sure is Padraig. I once had a former PGA Tour player offer the advice that to get better, “find a good coach and don’t listen to anyone else but him.” The process of integrating a new coach’s ideas is a long and winding road, so you never want to pull the plug prematurely. And only the player can know what’s premature and when its finally time. It will be interesting to see what Padraig’s sense of that turns out to be.