For Padraig Harrington, stress often leads to success on golf course

By Doug Ferguson
Published on
For Padraig Harrington, stress often leads to success on golf course

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) – For all the emotional stress of trying to win a golf tournament, Padraig Harrington can't seem to live without it.
Consider the Honda Classic.
A year ago, Harrington charged his way into the lead with four straight birdies, only to dump a 5-iron into the water and make double bogey on the par-3 17th hole to fall one shot behind. Right when it looked as though he had thrown away the tournament, Harrington made a 15-foot birdie putt to get into a playoff. Two holes later on the 17th, he hit another 5-iron to 3 feet that sewed up the victory.
It was wild.
Apparently it wasn't an aberration.
"If you actually knew my career," Harrington said Tuesday, "I don't think I've ever made it easy for myself. Ever. In my entire life."
The Honda Classic is the most recent example. Another would be his first British Open title at Carnoustie in 2007, when Harrington hit into the Barry Burn twice on the 18th hole and scrambled for a double bogey to lose the lead. And he still won the claret jug.
Sitting on the front row as Harrington spoke were 12-year-old Luke Clanton and 13-year-old Yae Eun Kim, who moments earlier posed with Harrington as a perk for winning the U.S. Kids Golf players of the year honors.
"I've been learning that lesson since I'm the age of the young ones here in front," he said. "I like a bit of adversity. I seem to bring it on myself. I've won plenty of tournaments where I've hit it out-of-bounds in the last round, plenty of tournaments where I've hit it in the water in the last round. So I know it's never over until the end."
From there, he took his audience halfway around the world to his victory at the end of 2014 in the Indonesian Open.
"I was tied going down the last and I hit it in the water," Harrington said. "I still won."
Then, he turned to the boy and girl on the front row and said, "Just remember that. I hit it in the water on the last and I still won. ... You never know what's going to happen."
He must wonder what would have happened without the Irish Youths at Dundalk Golf Club when he was 18. Harrington calls it the hardest tournament he ever lost. He was two shots ahead with three to play, and while there were no leaderboards on the course, someone told him the score.
"And I relaxed and I thought I had it won," he said. "And I bogeyed the last three holes."
He heard about it from the other kids, and he was devastated. That was about the time he started working with a sports psychologist, and he realized in his mind he didn't blow the tournament because of the pressure. He blew it because there was none.
That's his story, anyway.
"That particular week is when I realized – fortunately or unfortunately – I needed pressure or stress in order to play my best golf," he said. "I'm very good in that situation. When I mess up, I actually play better. I've spent years working with Bob Rotella trying to figure out how not to get defensive when I get ahead."
Seems it hasn't caught on.
"That's just the person I am," he said. "And I don't seem to be able to change it."
It has worked out fairly well for him. He has three majors, and only in one of them – a four-shot victory at Royal Birkdale in 2008 – was he able to walk comfortably up the 18th. He beat Garcia in a four-hole playoff at Carnoustie, and a year later he one-putted the last three holes to overtake Garcia at Oakland Hills in the PGA Championship.
Harrington has 20 victories around the world. He is nearly as proud of his 32 runner-up finishes, because he learned something from each of them. In fact, he's not sure he would have won at Carnoustie without that memory of the loss in the Irish Youths.
Harrington recalls standing over an 8-foot putt that would have put him three shots ahead of Garcia going to the 18th in the four-hole playoff. He missed badly.
"It was amazing the lack of focus I had in that putt," he said. "I realized it was the exact same feeling as Dundalk. I thought I had done it. I thought I had finished. `Wow, I'm going three shots ahead.' And I didn't have any focus whatsoever on it. It's a long walk from 17 tee to 18 green. All I was telling myself was I haven't won it, and all I was trying to do was put myself under pressure.
"So that loss in Dundalk possibly won me the Open in 2007, purely because I realized I don't perform well when I start relaxing. I'm always better when I'm fearful and nervous and got that stress in me."
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