Padraig Harrington interview 17 December 2008

December 18, 2008

THE first question came to grief in the kitchen. All primed to ask Pádraig Harrington where in his house he keeps the Claret Jug and the USPGA trophy, your correspondent was a little disappointed to see them perched above the sink, in between the potted plants.

“Ah, it’s just nice to have them there,” says the Dubliner. “If anyone wants to hold them, there they are.”

The second question relates to a Harrington interview in that morning’s Guardian, where the double Open champion said —

He interrupts: “I haven’t read anything about myself since I was 18, when I read an interview I gave and it put me off — I lost a match.”

From anyone else this could be translated as don’t bang the door as you leave. Not Harrington, who offers a reasoned explanation. “I know what I’ve said in an interview. I don’t need to be built up or taken down, if you know what I mean. I know you guys have to write the story, and make it exciting, but if you read the good stuff, you start to believe it.”

The irony, of course, is that Harrington is the most media-friendly megastar you’re likely to meet.

“The reason I talk is that I don’t judge. I’m freer when I’m giving interviews because I don’t feel I’m going to be judged.

“Unfortunately, all sports people are conditioned as soon as they come into sport, by mentors, managers and coaches that the press are the enemy. But if you don’t read it, it can’t harm you.

Harrington is a dedicated reader, as long as the subject isn’t himself. A copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is on a shelf in his office, but he hasn’t tackled that yet, having just finished The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb. With his attention to mental preparation, it’s no surprise Harrington reads a lot of self-help books. Does that mean over-analysis is a danger? Not quite. “I never analyse at all. Part of having a good mental game is not analysing things while you’re in an event, though that’s very difficult to do. I’ve jumped down the throat of a journalist or two — politely — for telling me my stats in the middle of a tournament, because I only care about the score I’m shooting. It doesn’t matter to me how many greens I’ve hit in regulation or not; the score is what’s important.

“So I don’t analyse, but that’s difficult. That’s why I play better when I’m smiling, because I’m not thinking. When I’m brooding, with the arms folded and looking down at my shoes — as I am now — that’s when I’m starting to think about what I’m doing. That’s what I have to avoid.”

It’s a fair contrast to the general perception of Harrington as an approachable exception to the glowering norm among elite sportsmen, but he’s pragmatic about that benign image.

“I work hard to enjoy my rounds of golf. That’s a fact. I work hard to smile on the golf course because I know when I do, I play better golf. But if I thought I played better when I looked grumpy on the course then I’d look grumpy.

“The goal is to be as confident as possible without arrogance. An ego without arrogance is difficult.

“I’m conscious — sometimes to my detriment — of wanting to be liked. I think we all have that issue, but I’d be conscious of being brought up that way. My father would have insisted on the etiquette of the game, more so than winning or playing good golf.

“That comes naturally to me. I don’t have to think about not throwing my clubs around the course: I just don’t. It’s in my make-up not to walk over a piece of paper on the golf course, I’d pick it up, and I’m diligent about fixing my pitch-marks. I’d have to fix them properly. That’s how my dad would have brought us up, but it wouldn’t have been something he lectured us on. It was just the way he was.”

The way Padraig Harrington lives now looks idyllic. And yet he points out many people “wouldn’t want to do what I do”.

“Much as people might think ‘I’d love to be a top pro golfer’, a lot of them would struggle,” he says. “A big part of being a successful sports person is accepting what goes along with that. If you fight that, you’re going to have a miserable time and you’ll find a way to sabotage your own career. The more you accept all that goes with your career, the more your subconscious will say ‘this is good, I want more of it’.

“It’s like a lot of guys who don’t realise they don’t like winning, because they don’t want the focus or the attention or the pressure — which is why many guys sabotage their game early, so they’ll be in the middle of the field.”

Harrington has been through the mill often enough himself to appreciate the importance of responsibility, a key term for him.

“The point is taking responsibility: you’ll miss the odd shot, but you’ll also hit the odd shot, and the glory and positives of scoring those shots outweigh the misses.

“Any top sportsman — and I’m being critical here in terms of my own career — understands that in order to win you must put your head on the line, and it’ll be chopped off a lot of days. And nothing is worse. It’s horrible. Nothing is worse than when you know you’ve messed up. Sometimes it’s totally outside your control but you still feel terrible — but the highs are worth it.”

Life has become even busier for Harrington following this year’s majors double (‘People are great in Ireland, I can go anywhere I like, but there’s a genuine feeling sometimes — would I be happier sitting at home?’) but the iron discipline needed to make it to the top is often visible in our conversation.

Take a casual question about sports events that get marked in red on the Harrington calendar.

“I don’t clear my schedule for anything, no. The only thing I look for in advance — as in putting it into my schedule — is Cheltenham. I went there a couple of years ago and had a great week. Nothing to do with me, it was all about horses — which I know nothing about — and everybody was getting excited, it was fantastic.

“I’ll go to rugby games and so on when it’s convenient — but only when it’s convenient. There probably isn’t a sporting event now that I couldn’t get to, yet I don’t change my schedule. Not for anything.

“I followed Sunderland’s results keenly – and I use that term deliberately — for the last couple of years. I know Niall Quinn and I’ll continue to support them, but there’s no doubt that there’ll be a lack of excitement, because the reason we follow Roy Keane is we don’t know what’s going to happen.

“That’s his star quality, whether you love him or hate him. It’s compelling, no matter what. Things like that interest me, because there’s such a high and a low in it, and there’s so much passion in it.”

He’s 37 now. A good age for a golfer, but a tricky signpost for most men on the road to middle-age spread.

“I’m not very careful of diet, but I’m aware of what I take in at all times. My problem is I put on weight, and if I start with the treats I’m in trouble.

“I certainly went five years without eating a burger. When I won the European Order of Merit a few years ago I was in Malaga airport, late for my flight, really hungry, and I wouldn’t touch them normally, but . . .”

So it wasn’t a Kobe burger or anything swish? “Not at all. A fast food place next to the Aer Lingus stand, I was in a rush and grabbed a burger . . . and it was the nicest food ever. I’ve eaten burgers since, probably two each of the nights I’ve won majors, but that’s it. I’d never order burgers, never order chips in a restaurant, because I put on weight. Ten pounds since the summer, and my body fat’s gone from 12.5% to 17.5%.

“My first year on tour I was 15 stone, and I went down to 11¾ stone through exercise. I’ve stayed at 13 stone for the last four years but now I’m creeping up to 14 stone, so I’ve to work on that.”

True to form, Harrington recognises benefits from exercise that go beyond the weighing scales.

“A huge number of sports people benefit more from the belief they’re doing something right than from the actual exercise.

“You’ll hear soccer players say ‘I’m doing a new weight programme and playing really well’, but they’re probably gaining more from the psychological benefit that they’re doing something to help them in their sport.

“Some sports people work out for vanity reasons — but that benefits them when it comes to their sport. Feeling good about yourself is a big part of success; if one player in a team sport isn’t fitting in then a lot of guys can be put out because of that.

“In golf, you see a player doing unbelievably well one week and missing the cut next week. Maybe they just liked the hotel they were in the first week, or they found a nice restaurant – some small thing that helps them.”

Harrington tries to take that element of chance out of the equation.

“Of the last 12 majors, I’ve won three and contended in others. But in 10 of them I turned up and played pretty well, which is really pleasing. My goal is to perform in three out of four majors. I’ll give one away, for whatever reason, but in three out of four I believe I’ll perform. If I can get in contention in two, then that’s four majors in two years, and I’d hope to win one. That’s the basis and it’s worked out, getting three wins out of 12 majors.”

So what are the realistic prospects for 2009?

“I don’t state my goals but I set them for myself — some are easy, some are tough. Players can get lost by setting a limiting goal; they reach the peak and feel there’s nowhere else to go. I’m not going to set a goal that might set me on the slippery slope to retirement.

“I try to improve every single department of my game. I’m sensible enough to believe that no matter how much I improve, my results won’t change enormously. They can’t get any better than my good results, but I’m enthusiastic enough to believe that every part of my game can be improved substantially between now and next year.”

He isn’t slow to offer examples.

“If you went through my game — I’ll tell you, I’ve had the yips in the bunker for about two years. Big trouble. If you asked my fellow pros, there’s probably not one who wouldn’t say, ‘No way, I’ve seen you’, but it’s me feeling it.

“Because I’m a professional golfer I’ll still try to get the ball up and down anyway, but I’ve really struggled.

“Even on my chipping, my bunker play, I’m fighting it, and that might be a better way of putting it. If I can improve that — and I believe it should be a lot better — I will, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get it up and down every time.

“Anyone looking at my game would rate my pitching as one of my stronger aspects, but I think I’ve a terrible flaw in my pitching. I know I can putt well but I can putt better. I certainly believe I can hit the ball better — straighter, longer.

“I’ve just gone through my whole game and that gets me out to practice. If I didn’t think I’d get better, I wouldn’t do it; if I even thought I was just keeping it the same, I wouldn’t do it. Any player trying to maintain what they have is scraping a last year or two out of his career. You must try to get better and better.”

Honest enough for you?

The self-examination continues.

” A lot of people wouldn’t get involved in this discussion, but I’ve changed everything. I totally changed my swing — if I was told I could get better, I’d go and do it, but I spent my first 10 years on the Tour getting better for the following week, not for the current week.

“I’ve led many tournaments going into the Sunday but I’d go to the practice range that morning and try to improve something for the following week. Crazy stuff. I’d never do that again. It was a flaw at the time.

” Even if I led tournaments I couldn’t let it go, but it was part of who I am. The reason I’ve performed better in the last couple of years is I understand who I am, I know what makes me play.”

It’s relentless, and he has the parable to suit the occasion.

He proceeds to tell the tale about Yehudi Menuhin, who was approached by a fan after a concert once.

“A woman said to him, ‘I’d give my life to play the violin like that’. Menuhin’s reply was to the point. ‘Madam, I already have’.

“In many ways that’s a lot like sport. You’ve got to love it, you’ve got to want it, but you also have to find a balance. Because if it’s the only priority in your life, it’ll probably kill you.”

A nice example of that balance will present itself next year, the pre-Masters Par 3 tournament. “Yeah, Paddy, my five-year-old is coming to caddy for me at the Par 3; I’ve won that a couple of times.” No pressure then, Harrington junior. Hope his terms of employment are watertight.

“Well, many sons have caddied for their dads. And many of them have been fired, of course.”

Delivered with a straight face. Almost.

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