Padraig Harrington reflects on managing his mental game.
Padraig Harrington admits he’s matured. He sees things today in a different way than he did when he was in his twenties. At least that’s what he told media in a press conference prior to defending his title at the Honda Classic.
One thing he pointed out is that his 29 second-place finishes made him a better golfer, one who was able to win three major championships, one who now shares advice with younger players.
“When I was 25 years of age, everybody was my competitor,” he said. “Now I’ve mellowed out quite a lot and I’d be quite happy to give advice to the young guys on the Tour. I’m not as competitive in that sense. If I thought I had the secret to the game 20 years ago, I would have guarded it. Now, look, everybody can know everything. It’s up to them to do it.”
He’s not at the dog-eat-dog stage at this point in his career. One reason is that Harrington has won two British Opens and a PGA, 30 tournaments around the world, including six on the PGA Tour. He’s been on six Ryder Cups. But he wasn’t always winning.
“At one stage, I think I had 29 second places on The European Tour or around the world, and people wanted to pigeon-hole me into a certain category,” he said about his years with the Avis label. “Some of them I lost through being ahead and relaxing. Some I lost to hitting bad shots under pressure. Some I shot a great round to finish second. Somebody else holed a putt to beat me, and I could do nothing about it.”
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In other words, when it comes to losing a tournament, Harrington has seen it all.
“All 29 second places were learning experiences, and the third and fourth places, you’re learning every time,” he explained. “You understand how to read a situation, and that’s the one thing I can do really well now. I read the situation very well coming down the stretch. I can understand what the other players are doing, how they are feeling, what’s likely to happen; who is the threat, what do I have to do; do I need to push on or is that guy going to come back to me.”
If you want a statistical comparison to Harrington’s seconds, Jack Nicklaus finished second 58 times on the PGA Tour.
Along the way, Harrington also gained a lot of playoff experience.
“A one-man playoff is a great place to be. A four-man playoff is a terrible place to be,” he said. “Basically in a one-man playoff, you have two ways of winning. You can birdie or he can mess up. In a four-man playoff, it’s pretty much, it’s a fight at that stage. Who knows what’s going to happen. You have to adjust your strategy, and I got good at that. I just wish I was in contention more often.”
His depth experience at age 44, whether it’s winning majors or knowing how to succeed in a playoff, allow him to be more a little more relaxed on the golf course, but that isn’t always a good thing for him.
In fact, he had to learn how get up for finishing a playoff or a tournament because he has found that being too relaxed can be a detriment to good play.
“I like a bit of adversity. I seem to bring it on myself,” he explained about his mindset. “I tend to have a little bit of an issue with having a lead in terms of, I relax a little bit at times and get a bit defensive. I think I’ve always played my best golf when it’s on the line, I’m under pressure, and I get the feeling, well, there’s nothing to lose at this stage.”
He said many times he has had the lead only to relax too much and come back to the pack. He has won tournaments when he has hit out-of-bounds or in the water in the last round. The most recent example he could give was in Indonesia the year before last.
“I was tied going down the last, and I hit it in the water. I still won,” he said. “When I mess up, I actually get better. Sometimes when things are going swimmingly well, I get a little bit defensive. Always have been. I’ve spent years working with Bob Rotella trying to figure out how to be — how not to get defensive when I get ahead. You know, that’s just the person I am, and I don’t seem to be able to change it.”
But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t learned from the past.
In fact, a difficult loss at the Irish Youths at Dundalk Golf Club helped him win the British Open.
“I was two ahead and three to play, and we didn’t have leaderboards,” Harrington recalled. “But somebody came out and told me I was two ahead with three to play, and I relaxed, and I thought I had it won, and I bogeyed the last three holes.”
He did not win. That’s when he realized that he couldn’t be relaxed until a tournament was over.
“I need to be hyped up. I need that adrenaline, and I need that buzz at the end of a round,” he said.
That self-knowledge became important at the 2007 British Open at Carnoustie.
“On the third playoff hole, I had got an 8-footer to go three shots ahead. And I rolled that putt down there with zero intensity,” he explained “It was amazing how lack of focus I had in that putt. And I realized when I hit it — it’s amazing I realized — it was the exact same feeling as Dundalk. I thought I had done it. I thought I had finished, wow, I’m going three shots ahead and I didn’t have any focus whatsoever on it.”
Walking from the 17th green to the 18th tee, he gave himself a mental lecture.
“I was telling myself was I haven’t won it, and all I was trying to do was put myself under pressure going to the 18th tee,” he said. “So that loss in Dundalk possibly won me the Open in 2007, purely because I realized, hang on a second, I don’t perform very well when I start relaxing.”
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