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From Practice to the Real Thing

Dermot GIlleece talks to Padraig Harrington

Posted Jan 16, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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Padraig Harrington is at a stage in his career when he knows that actions need to speak a lot louder than words.  Yet as he embarks on his 17th year on tour, the Dubliner can’t resist talking the talk.   

Among his observations is that expectations from outside the fairway ropes are far too high.  “Even though I know everything that’s going on in my game, it doesn’t guarantee that I will always react as I should,” said the 40-year-old winner of three Major championships.  “But I do have the necessary information to make judgements whereas others clearly don’t.”

He went on: “When I look at a soccer-player who has stopped scoring goals, I have probably no more than 10 per cent of the information behind his decline.  So I wouldn’t dare suggest differently. But that’s not the way of your average fan.  They keep doing it, certainly where my game is concerned.”

From a high of third in the world, Harrington has crashed to a current 89th at breath-taking speed.  Among other things, this illustrates how reflective the rankings are of current form.  If you don’t deliver results, it won’t be long before you’re out of the reckoning for the lucrative WGC events, irrespective of how many Major titles are on your CV.  For instance, not even victory in the Volvo Champions event at Fancourt, South Africa on Sunday, would restore Harrington to the world’s top-60.  

By his own admission, his most serious problem has been an inability to bring practice form onto the golf course.  Which explains his target of developing skills capable of making this happen.  He explained:  “The old practice range at Augusta National had 14 metal polls supporting the fence at the far end.  That meant 13 segments of fencing about 15 yards apart.  

 “Getting a drive within those segments was obviously a severe test of accuracy, especially when it came to the outer ones where you wouldn’t want to hit balls out of the range completely.  But it wasn’t impossible.  I remember one particular Masters, about six or seven years ago, when I did that practice every day.  I spent hours doing it, I enjoyed it so much.  And the interesting bit is that if you look at the Masters driving stats for that particular year, you’ll find I was right up there at the end of the week.  So, that clearly represented a good transfer from the practice ground to the golf course.  But it hasn’t been happening often enough in recent years.

“Another practice drill I’ve successfully maintained, however, is that when I go to the chipping green I look around for somebody I know who’ll have a chipping competition with me.  That’s what we did when we were kids. There’s a bit of pressure involved, a bit of intensity waiting for the other guy to hit his shot.  You feel you’re actually playing for something.”

Notable failures with the driver, especially at the climactic stage of the 2007 Open Championship which he won after a play-off, seem to have eaten into Harrington’s confidence with the big stick. “Not being able to hit the 72nd fairway at Carnoustie really, really frustrated me, because I had hit a similarly wayward drive on the 72nd at Muirfield in 2002,” he admitted.  “And as much as I was trying to figure out why it should have happened prior to Carnoustie, there’s no doubt it came far more into focus after 2007.”

He continued: “You’re never going to hit a bad shot intentionally.  They’re caused by mental errors.  When that mental error has occurred, however, I’ve always wanted to know what was physically happening so that I can continually keep a lid on it when I see it creeping in.  Even at that, I still find myself looking back to Muirfield 2002 as the best I ever hit the ball in a Major championship.  Why didn’t I win instead of Ernie (Els)?  I had a horrible week on the greens.  Yet even with the worst putting week I can remember, a par down the last instead of a bogey would have got me into a play-off.”

All of which explains why Harrington’s main focus this season will be on acquiring “better practice habits.”  As he pointed out: “I’ve always been happy with how I’ve worked on my short game. The objective now must be to apply the same drills to the longer shots.”

- Dermot Gilleece

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