Harrington zoning in on Turnberry three-peat

Sat, Jul 11, 2009, 01:00

PHILIP REIDon how the defending champion is not happy to just win a major, he has to understand how he did it

THE ZONE. How do you describe what it’s like to be in the zone? Pádraig Harrington reckons that in his entire professional career, the number of times he has ever entered that mystical place amounts to no more than three or four. Not even a handful.

Of course, he wishes it were more. But he can’t plan it. Nobody can. You can’t just press a button and let it happen. All you can do is embrace the moment if, or when, it arrives.

Recently, he read a book, The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence by Josh Waitzkin. The author’s name should ring a bell. Waitzkin was the chess prodigy in Searching for Bobby Fischer – the book that was made into a film – who decided sitting in front of a chessboard was not for him and took up martial arts.

Harrington can relate to Waitzkin. “He says in the book, which is phenomenal, that he got to such a standard in Taekwando,” says Harrington, “that, when he got in the zone, he was able to see the guy blink and know what his opponent was going to do, that it was (all) in slow motion. To him, he wasn’t aware of going in slow motion, but he had time . . . (like) a soccer player, when he is having a good day, will tell you he had so much time, he is just seeing it quicker. The time is the same, but his perception of time changes.

“And (being) in the zone is seeing things so much better. The hardest thing about being in the zone in golf is that you have loads of time to get yourself out of it, so you have to be aware, once you are in it, just to run with it.”

There are many professional sportsmen, not just golfers, who couldn’t care less how they got into the zone. Or why. Harrington, his mind always seeking answers, would rather know. “I’m very complicated into what is happening. I’m trying to understand the whole process so I can control it . . . I probably wouldn’t be able to accept performing (well) without knowing why . . . I don’t think I would enjoy winning if I didn’t know why I was winning. I think the ultimate satisfaction of winning is understanding how I got there. Unfortunately, while I admire it, I pay very little respect to somebody who wins without knowing why.”

Harrington’s complexity might explain why he would tinker with his swing, a trait that has been with him all through his amateur days and on into a professional career that has seen him become Europe’s standard bearer in the majors these last few years. Three majors – two British Opens (2007 and 2008) and one US PGA (2008) – provide the silverware to prove it has all be worth it.

Tomorrow, Harrington will fly over to Turnberry in south-west Scotland by helicopter – a trip that will take little more than half an hour from his home in the foothills of the Dublin mountains to the house he has rented beside the links and which will be home for the next eight days or so – and will seek to become the first player since Australia’s Peter Thomson to win three successive British Open championships.

Of that quest for what the Americans might call a three-peat, Harrington acknowledges, “it would be very special for it to happen. But, again, I am realistic about these things and am looking at it in an overall context. I want to compete in many majors going forward. I want to win more majors. The idea that it has to be the next one is not how I go about things. If I compete in the next five Opens, I’ll try to get myself right in there and win two of them. It doesn’t have to be this year . . . I know it would be remarkable in terms of it not having been done since Peter Thomson. But there’s no point in me focusing on that. If it happens, I’ll be singing from the rooftops. But there’s no point on me focusing on the extra one tournament.”

In Harrington’s house, the evidence of his major hauls are never far from the eye. The replica of the huge Wanamaker Trophy (for winning the US PGA) is positioned in the hallway just inside the door. The Claret Jugs are on the kitchen table. He has room for more if, or when, the times comes.

So, can he win the Open again this year? Honest as the day is long, Harrington replies, “I’ve got to tell myself that, in my head, yes . . . you know, I felt good walking to the first tee at Bethpage (in the US Open) and that’s the sort of thing I want to have going into the Open. That’s what I’ve had the last two and a half years in majors, that peace on a Wednesday evening that you feel like you’ve done all you can and you’re ready to go.”

A time when the mind is clear, and ready to get into that zone again? Perhaps.