- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

Amid the year of golf’s ultimate comeback, Padraig Harrington’s remarkable late-season renaissance has been somewhat lost in the shuffle.

Regardless of what happens in this week’s FedEx Cup finale at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, world No. 1 Tiger Woods is a lock to be both the PGA Tour’s player of the year and its comeback player of the year. Forget Tiger’s futility in the majors; considering Woods barely could walk at this time last year following reconstructive knee surgery, the fact that the 33-year-old has collected six victories and leads the tour in scoring average (68.06) by more than a stroke is staggering.

What else is new? Another year, another mystifying accomplishment by Woods.

But perhaps Harrington deserves comeback consideration in the mere mortal category. After all, few other players in the game’s storied history have managed to tear apart and rebuild their swings successfully in the same season.

Following an epic 2008 in which he collected his second and third major titles in succession at the British Open and PGA Championship, the Dubliner stunningly announced he was changing his swing.

“I’ve done similar things in the past but much more under the radar,” said Harrington, seemingly amused by all the angst his project engendered in the media. “This time it was out in the spotlight. Fact is, I’m not happy if I’m not working on something. It’s been said before, but there’s no such thing as stasis when it comes to the golf swing. You’re either improving or you’re slipping. I knew I needed to make some changes to be a better player in the long run. So I did it - simple as that.”

Through the first three quarters of the season, only the 38-year-old Dubliner could see the improvements. Everyone else saw only the atrocious results of a player who had followed the best season of his career by jettisoning a reliable swing.

Harrington arrived at the British Open in the midst of the worst slump of his career. In 17 starts on the PGA and European Tours, Harrington had recorded just one top-five finish, missed eight cuts and sported a robust scoring season average of 71.57.

What particular issue prompted Harrington to flirt with career oblivion?

“An area of my game that had annoyed me for three years, all the way through those majors I had won,” Harrington said. “You can’t believe how annoyed I was at Carnoustie [after winning the British Open in 2007]. I walked off Carnoustie hitting the ball pure after the last round, and basically I hit everything three or four yards right of the flag. You know, I just hit it dead straight right of the flag, and I’m looking at that going, ‘Well, why do I hit everything a little bit out?’ ”

Most players, even at the game’s highest level, would label such a shot a fade, incorporate it into their game plan and call it a day. Not Harrington, who wanted to eliminate his inexplicable left-to-right ball flight, hit the ball higher to increase his odds of success in the United States and add a draw to his repertoire.

He revealed volumes about his perfectionist mentality when trying to explain the changes to the Belfast Telegraph this summer: “Howard Hughes, as a 14-year-old kid, got his dad to buy him a sports car so he could pull it apart. He spent a month breaking it down bit-by-bit and then putting it all back together. Well, that’s me with my golf game.”

And in the past two months, that game has begun to produce familiar results for the player who has supplanted Vijay Singh as golf’s quintessential range rat. Harrington has posted five consecutive top-10 finishes since the British Open, including ties for second at the Bridgestone Invitational and Barclays. His scoring average during the streak is a sexy 69.15 - nearly 10 strokes a tournament better than at the start of the season. He is the only player to record top-10 finishes in each of the first three FedEx Cup events, and he enters this week’s Tour Championship in sixth place.

The only thing missing during his torrid return to form is a victory.

“If I win this tournament, say, and win the FedEx Cup, when we look back in time we say 2009 was a great year,” Harrington said. “You weren’t going to say that two months ago. It was looking pretty miserable at this stage of the year. … It’s still in the balance.

“As I said, if I can get that win, it would turn the year into a very successful one.”

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