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Padraig Harrington
Winning his third straight Irish PGA Championship on Saturday showed Padraig Harrington that his game is rounding into shape. (Franklin/Getty Images)

Despite his struggles in 2009, don't count Harrington out

Two-time defending champ Padraig Harrington has been in anything but championship form lately. He feels like his recent swing changes are kicking in, though, and enters the week on an upswing.

By Melanie Hauser, PGATOUR.COM Contributor

The last few months have been a bit of a mess.

He’s found the rough off the tee. Missed chips shots and putts. Missed cuts.

His form? More than a bit scruffy and anything but that of a man with three majors in his hip pocket and a chance this week to tie Peter Thomson’s record of three consecutive Claret Jugs.

But if there’s anything we know about the two-time defending Champion Golfer of the Year, it’s that we can never count him out.

Remember last year when everyone was sneaking a peek at Padraig Harrington’s wrist on the practice tee at Birkdale? No one knew if he would tee it up Thursday morning. It was the question of the week.

And we all know what happened Sunday afternoon.

Now Turnberry, where the rough is nasty, thick and oh-so close to the fairways and greens. At least it was two weeks ago when he and swing coach Bob Torrance spent a few days trying to turn things around.

“The course is playing very similar to the U. S. Open of three or four years ago, maybe an Oakmont kind of thing,” Harrington told European writers. “It’s also very close to Muirfield in 2002. You couldn’t get away with missing fairways there, either.”

And, yes, he’s readjusted his thinking. His idea of a target score this week is 5 under. Not the original 16-under prediction.

As for his game? Yes, he just won his third consecutive Ladbrokes Irish PGA Championship on Saturday, but scruffy has been the best way to describe it this season. After winning back-to-back majors in 2008 -- he followed the Open with the PGA Championship at tough Oakland Hills -- Harrington decided to tweak his swing so he could win even more majors. Sound familiar? Tiger Woods did it too and struggled with it.

Just not with the five missed cuts in six PGA TOUR/European Tour events Harrington has endured the past few months. Then again …

“I will tell you one thing now and Padraig being Padraig, he is just as liable to easily turn it all around and win the Open," said fellow Irishman Darren Clarke. "You only have to take a look at last year. He had a very average year apart from winning the two majors."

Harrington has been shaking his head all year. But that last of five missed cuts -- at the French Open -- may have been the best thing to happen all year. Instead of two more frustrating rounds, he and Torrance headed to Ayrshire and the Ailsa Course to find a little magic.

Allowed to use the course, instead of the practice area, for practice, Harrington and Torrance headed out to work on three holes and wound up playing 18 each of two days.

“I would say he missed four fairways in all that time,” Torrance told The Scotsman. “I think I understood a bit of his thinking for the first time in 13 years. He hit two of the left and I said, ‘What happened there?’ He replied, ‘I just wanted to see what was over there, in case I happen to be over there in the tournament.’”

Last week, Harrington chose to play in the Irish PGA Championship at the European Club last week instead of the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond.

"I'm obviously looking for form and I'm obviously looking for confidence,” Harrington said. “I'm not a believer in things changing overnight. I am a believer in nice steady progress.

"The reason I've missed the last number of cuts has been my putting and, no doubt, that was the case last week. Yet I saw progress on all fronts in France.’’

 And at the European Club? He went mostly with irons and 3-woods off the tee in the opening round, one-putted eight greens and opened with a 68. Three rounds later, he won his third consecutive Irish PGA -- this one by seven shots over former British Amateur champion Brian McElhinney.

Granted, it wasn’t a strong field, but he was playing the course. And if he went three-for-three in the Irish PGA, could he win his third Open, too? It will definitely be a talking point this week.

The soft-spoken, humble Harrington has spent most of the year talking about patience -- a signature of his career. He does things at his own pace, understanding his quest for perfection is, in part, being comfortable with his strengths and his limitations. He isn’t Tiger or Phil or Darren. He’s Paddy, a three-time major champ.

That final round at Birkdale was amazing. While the world was wondering if Greg Norman could pull off a miracle, Harrington was brilliant. A closing 69. A four-stroke win. The end to any question that his Open Championship at Carnoustie would leave him a one-major wonder.

A month later, he left Sergio Garcia shaking his head at Oakland Hills for major No. 3 and a fast finish to 2008.

Harrington started the 2009 season with a share of 11th at the HSBC Champions and followed with a share of fifth place in Abu Dhabi and a share of 11th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He made the cut at the Masters, but tied for 35th, then missed the cut at the U.S. Open for part of that five-missed-cut streak.

He’s made headlines this year for what he hasn’t done as well for his tumble from No. 3 in the world to No. 12 and the swing tweaks. But while headlines scream, he remains patient and offers a bit of perspective.

“There has been a bit of focus on work I have been doing on my swing,’’ he said last month. “In fairness, I've done that work all the time at different stages in my career. And what all the difference is, I'm a little bit more high profile now and the spotlight is on me and people are noticing that I'm doing it.

“But at many stages in my career I have stopped, especially when I peak at a certain level. It takes me a little bit of time. When I got to my first year in Tour I think I finished 11th -- finished 11th, then 8th, then finished 31st the following year because I was changing things. When I got to 14th in the world I dropped back a bit. When I got 8th in the world I dropped back a bit.

“And I kind of have to get to a point, let myself drop back and come back to it before I feel comfortable at it,” he explained. “I was No. 3 in the world. I wanted to get better, and the way to get better is improve things and change things, and if that means I step back a bit, that's okay in the short term.’’

Would he have liked to see the changes take hold a bit quicker? Absolutely.

“But some of these times are just the road to hell are paved with good intentions,” he said. “I did have good intentions. I'm comfortable with it. I'm going to be patient. I know where I am.”

Just how this 138th Open Championship will unfold is a mystery. Despite going 0-for-09 majors so far, Tiger heads into the week as the odds-on favorite.

And Harrington? He’ll be there in Tiger’s shadow with everyone else, wondering if the Irish PGA will be an omen and hoping things truly have clicked into place with his game so he can have at least the chance to tie Thomson’s record.

Long shot? He was last year when everyone woke up early Thursday morning to see if he did indeed make it to the first tee with that sore wrist.

Back then and now, Clarke was right. Never count Paddy out.

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