Commentary

Paddy back in swing at Bridgestone

Updated: August 7, 2009, 11:36 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

AKRON, Ohio -- Not only does Padraig Harrington relish the process, the Irishman has come to enjoy explaining the madness behind it.

By now you know the backstory.

Harrington comes from behind over the final nine holes at both the British Open and PGA Championship last year, becomes the first European to win consecutive majors, takes three of the past six major titles, wins PGA and European Tour player of the year honors … then changes his swing.

As the 2009 season progressed, while Harrington's form regressed, he at least derived some joy from coming up with interesting ways to justify the seemingly silly notion that he had to get worse to get better.

Prior to the British Open last month, Harrington revealed that he had read a book about Howard Hughes, who had taken apart an automobile piece by piece, then put it back together again.

"That's me with my golf game," Harrington said.

This week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, with Harrington going on nearly a year without a decent finish in a PGA Tour event, he had another way of looking at it.

"I've always been a person who tries to improve at all costs," said Harrington, whose 69 on Friday gave him a 1-shot lead over Tim Clark through two rounds. "I said if somebody told me I had to go to a desert island for the next two years and I would improve my game, the hard part would be telling my wife. Because that's what I would do. That's always been my makeup.

"If I felt it was the way to improve my game, that's what I would be doing. And the hard part for my wife would be telling the kids that we're moving. She'd be kicking me out the door."

That has not happened -- yet. Harrington's wife, Caroline, and their two children, Patrick and Ciaran, made the journey to Ohio this week, then took off for a water park on Thursday while dad was out shooting his best score of the year.

So enamored were they with the fun, they barely bothered to ask Harrington how things went at Firestone Country Club.

"It's fair to say that the ins and outs were somewhere down the agenda," he said.

Of course, the ins and outs have always been what make Padraig Harrington.

Never mind that the past 12 months have been the worst, in terms of results, of Harrington's 14-year professional career. Or that he has missed 10 cuts around the world in that period and dropped from third to 17th in the world. Or that he is 142nd -- 142nd! -- in the FedEx Cup standings and in danger of not even qualifying for the first of the four playoff events later this month.

"I know he's struggled a little bit and he's probably gotten a little too much criticism for working on his game," said Scott Verplank, who played with Harrington during the first two rounds at Bridgestone. "But you know what? He's the only one that knows what he needs to do. Regardless of what anybody else says, he's the only one who knows."

Harrington still walks around like he hasn't a care in the world. And if there has been criticism, he has either ignored it or let it slide. When Tom Watson said at the British Open that he felt it was wrong for Harrington to try shortening his swing, Harrington simply said that wasn't what he was trying to do -- and thanked Watson for caring.

"Oh, it's been very positive," said Harrington, and that was before he opened the Bridgestone with rounds of 64 and 69 to take the 36-hole lead. "I definitely found what I was looking for, and in that process I probably learned a lot more about my game than I ever could have wished to have learned.

"I've been 2½ or three years trying to sort out the problem. I haven't done very well at sorting it out. But over the last eight months, I definitely got to the bottom of it, and I'm happy about that."

Harrington continues to claim that the work to improve his ballstriking has been worth the agony.

Missing during all that time has been the ability to score, and Harrington said he has returned his thoughts to that process rather than worrying so much about mechanics. And it hasn't hurt that he put some extra effort into his short game -- long a strength of his -- which had suffered while he worked on his swing.

"You have to make changes in order to get better," said Tiger Woods, who has twice in his career gone through the process -- and heard criticism along the way. "A lot of times you're going to get worse before you do get better. It's a matter of other parts of your game trying to pick you up and understanding how to score when you don't have your best stuff. But you know it's coming.

"You have to believe in what you're doing. And you have to believe what you're doing is right, even though people tell you what you're doing is wrong. I've been through that twice, and I think I've turned out on the good side both times. You've got to have the internal resolve to stick with what you believe is going to be right and you're going to get better."

Woods offers hope for Harrington. The game's No. 1 player -- who trails Harrington by 5 strokes here -- changed his swing after winning the Masters by 12 shots in 1997, and he didn't win his second major until the 1999 PGA Championship. And after winning seven more majors through 2002, Woods again sought to make changes, failing to win another major until the 2005 Masters.

It is far too soon to pronounce Harrington cured. His 64-69 is the first time he has shot back-to-back rounds under par since he went 67-68 at the Houston Open four months ago. He followed those scores with a final-round 77.

His last top-10 was at the Abu Dhabi Championship in January and his last victory -- save for a club-pro event he won in Ireland last month -- came almost exactly a year ago at Oakland Hills, where he shot a back-nine 32 to clip Sergio Garcia.

"I've found what I was looking for," Harrington said. "That's freed up my mind to go back to working on the important things, the scoring, the short game and my mental game."

As for the trip to a desert island? Apparently that won't be necessary.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com