Padraig Harrington has got an answer to everything.
Whether he’s cultivating facial hair, starting to use a long putter just as they are about to banned or working on deliberately putting weight on his stomach, the one thing you can guarantee is that there will be a ready explanation.
And to Harrington’s lively, inquisitive and above all independent mind, it will all make perfect sense. He will never be short of a theory, and everything is done for a reason.
At no point in his career has he stopped trying to get better. So to him it made perfect sense to deconstruct the swing which won him back-to-back Open Championships and a PGA. He will be trying to improve his technique until the day his career is over. And the day this eternal quest for improvement ends, his career will be over.
So far, so good. The only problem being that it is now exactly five years since his most recent Major win, which is also his last PGA Tour and European Tour victory. In fact, the only title he can claim since then is the 2010 Johor Open in Malaysia.
All of which means he now faces an unpalatable fact. With a world ranking currently hovering in the 60s, and the five-year blanket exemptions that come from winning a Major now having expired, as things stand Harrington will not receive an invitation to Augusta and would need to qualify for the US Open.
So is this the end of the 41-year-old’s career as a Major contender, or merely a blip in his long period at the very top?
How would it feel if we get to April and you don’t have a place in the Masters?
“At this very moment I’m not even entertaining that. I know that it’s a possibility. It would be a big disappointment. I think this year I had three different qualifications and I did think with a wry smile that I wish I could have kept one of those back for next year.
I thought the same at the US Open where I’d qualified three or four different ways, so you’re kind of thinking ‘could I not keep one of those?’
“My job is to play well this week, next week and keep going and think that it will look after itself. The Masters gives plenty of opportunities and if I don’t make it I won’t have played well enough.”
The last time you weren’t exempt from a Major championship was 1999. If you are in that position next year how will you react?
“I last qualified for a Major at Panmure in 1999 for Carnoustie. I wouldn’t have been in the US Majors that year because I changed coach at the end of 1998 and obviously that would have taken a step back in the rankings before things started moving forward again.
“That’s always been my career – one step back and hopefully two steps forward. I’m very confident about my game and where I am. If I have to qualify next year for the US Open then I will try to do so.
“Thankfully I’m in the Open until I’m 65 and the PGA until I’m 60 or whatever – so I don’t have to worry about those at the moment, but the main goal at the moment is to get into the top 50 – because that gets me into the events that I need to make the Ryder Cup team. That would be more of a priority. I missed out on the last one because I wasn’t top 50 and missed out on the seven easiest events to get world ranking points in.
“But I’m comfortable with my game and I’m confident and I’m trying to stay patient.”
It’s five years since your PGA win – does it feel that long ago?
“No, it’s gone really quickly, especially the first couple of years, maybe the first, second and third years, where it just felt like yesterday. I haven’t won now in five years so it’s starting to feel like it’s been a while now and it makes you desperate to win another one.”
Where would you say your career is in terms of your time at the top?
“There’s no doubt that there are many parts of my game that I feel better with, but I’m certainly not as good without the box grooves, that’s for sure. That’s a big difference for me and it has made a big difference to my short game.”
You’re 42 in a few weeks and we know that statistically very few players win Majors after their mid-40s. How conscious are you of the passing of time?
“I think the physical nature of the game has changed, so players are now fitter and stronger as they get older. I’m certainly fitter and stronger now than I was 10 years ago and I’m hitting the ball further now than I was five or 10 years ago, so there’s no physical restraint.
“I don’t think I’m burned out and I am certainly enthusiastic. I still practise morning, noon and night, but there’s no doubt that I find the mental side of it harder. Now is that age? I don’t like to think that it’s age, and with experience it should be easier. But there’s no doubt that my ability to focus is changing.
“I’m trying to focus rather than just focusing and that’s a strange concept. Is that an age thing? I don’t like to think so but I guess other people would like to say so. I like to believe that I’m different, and I’m sure we all do, but I believe the best is still to come and that I’m going to win more Majors.
You always looked as if you relished being one of the main favourites. Is that still the case and when it comes to the Majors do you feel that you are step above the rest of the field?
“I definitely believe that the Majors are easier to win because a lot of the field get mixed up in their preparation and haven’t found the right formula to bring to the competition.
“Then there are certain players who will play well but if they haven’t won a Major before then the pressure can get too much.”
“I wish every week was like the US Open, because that is a great challenge and one in which I feel I could be competitive in. A regular event feels like a 100m sprint to me, whereas a Major feels like a marathon.
“In a Major you feel like you can pace yourself and be patient, whereas in a regular event if you’re not four under after nine holes then you’re probably gone and you get anxious because you’re not in it. I have a formula which I know has worked in the past and will work again.”
What did you take away from last year’s US Open at Olympic, which was the last time that you were genuinely in contention?
“I try to work to the principle with Majors that if I have three or four of those chances then I would succeed once, and if I got lucky then I might get two.
“But you have to create opportunities in order to win. If you think you’re going to win a Major every time you get into contention then it isn’t going to happen.
“It’s creating a good number of chances to win that will get you across the line. That’s the great thing about professional golfers – we only need to get across the line once every so often to be deemed as completely outstanding in our career.
“The ideal scenario would be to get into contention twice a year, and then every two years win one.”
If you could go back to the end of 2008 and you could have your time again, would you do anything differently?
“No, not at all. You look at what makes you win the Majors and you think ‘my mental game was really strong, let’s make it even stronger’, and there’s no doubt I’ve been trying too hard – believing that makes the sole difference.
“I’ve been too focused on trying too hard.
“With hindsight, the mental game may have won it for me but my trying harder to make it perfect has made it tougher for me, and I’m only coming to terms with that in recent times.”