- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland

Never has a threepeat bid seemed such a no-chance bust. Ten months ago, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington stood astride the golf world, clutching the claret jug in one hand and the Wanamaker Trophy in the other. Admirably filling the void created by the absence of Tiger Woods, Harrington collected the season’s final two majors in heroic fashion, blitzing Greg Norman and the rest of the field with a closing-nine 32 at blustery Birkdale, then cementing his ethereal status by slapping down Sergio Garcia at Oakland Hills.

He became one of only five active players with three or more major victories, joining Woods (15) and fellow three-timers Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson. He was the runaway winner for player of the year on both the PGA and European tours.

He concluded the season with the world’s No. 3 ranking. He signed a massive contract extension with Wilson. He was nearly as popular in Ireland as the pope. And after years of waiting, golf thought it finally had discovered a killer closer capable of tangling with Tiger.

Then Harrington committed one of the sporting world’s cardinal sins: He asked, “Why?”

Though his brilliance was always based on mettle and a superior short game, not mechanics or a superb swing, Harrington suddenly had to know the means behind the magic. Suddenly technique trumped results and curiosity, and ambition put a 4-and-3 whipping on satisfaction.

At Turnberry this week, Harrington will attempt to become the first player since Australia’s Peter Thomson (1954-56) to win three consecutive British Opens.

“I wanted to have a more complete… understanding,” Harrington said. “I just wanted to have a better golf swing. … I definitely think I’ll be a better player at the end of this process. I definitely think going forward I’ll be quite happy with it all. Sometimes you make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains.”

Woods said precisely the same thing when he was in the midst of both his first and second radical swing changes (1998 and 2003-04). But after Woods and six-time major champion Nick Faldo, it’s difficult to come up with elite players who not only survived but surged following complete swing overhauls.

How bad has Harrington been in 2009? He has just one top-10 finish in 17 combined starts on the PGA and European tours. And he has headed steadily in the wrong direction since tying for fifth at Abu Dhabi to start the season. He has missed the cut in his last five starts on the two tours, producing a woeful scoring average of 73.6.

But his swing is prettier, more upright, a switch he thought would help him produce a higher ball flight and compete more regularly in the United States. He has added a draw to his arsenal of shots, giving him another shape and some added length. Never mind that it’s often a snap hook or that his stock fade was as dependable as death.

Harrington did win last week’s Irish PGA Championship, beating some club pro named Brian McElhinney by seven strokes. But to his credit, the struggling 37-year-old placed little stock in the victory.

“My long game was as poor as it’s been all year,” Harrington said after vanquishing the forgettable field at the European Club while the rest of the golf establishment was either at Loch Lomond or slogging about in the John Deere Classic.

But Harrington remains convinced his swing changes will pay dividends in the long run, reporting on Monday to Turnberry for some extra range work with swing coach Bob Torrance and a much-needed psychological boost from mental guru Bob Rotella.

So how does Harrington feel about this week’s threepeat quest, which British bookmakers have given an optimistic 34-1 chance?

“I would say it’s very sketchy, obviously,” Harrington said, his confidence in need of a defibrillator. “I could only be hopeful rather than expectant to put in a good performance.

“Obviously, I’m going for three in a row, so the spotlight is on me, and that’s probably made it a little harder. … I don’t know what I’ll have. Certainly the confidence isn’t at high tide, but the time has come for this defense whether I’m ready or not. I’ll take what I’ve got out there and try to keep it interesting.”

It’s hard to imagine anything being more intriguing for golf goose-neckers than his slow-motion career suicide.

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