Friday, September 11, 2009

Harrington Takes Risks, Thinking Only of the Rewards

LEMONT, Ill. — From his first round at San Diego’s Torrey Pines Golf Course in February to his second round at the BMWChampionship on Friday in Chicago’s western suburbs, Padraig Harrington has tried unsuccessfully to win a golf tournament. Through it all, he has managed a significant victory.

He has maintained both his sense of humor and his equilibrium.

In the face of serial second-guessing from fans, pundits and experts over his decision to tinker with his swing after winning three majors in 13 months from 2007 to 2008, Harrington has signed autographs for and wisecracked with those same critics as he has sought to regain his winning form.

Harrington was at it again Friday at the BMW Championship at Cog Hill Golf and Country Club, smiling and shaking his head after a wayward drive at the 18th hole — his second in two days — resulted in a bogey that cost him a share of the 36-hole lead held jointly by Tiger Woods and Mark Wilson at seven under. He was clearly enjoying himself.

“How could you not?” he said after shooting his second 68 to finish a shot behind Woods and Wilson. “Every day you wake up to a lifestyle like I have playing professional golf? As I always say, I’d play this game for free, just don’t tell anybody.

“Every day is a good day on the golf course.”

That bromide will be tested again this weekend when Harrington chases Woods and Wilson in an effort to complete his goal of being one of the top five seeds at the Tour Championship in two weeks. He will have to bring his game, because Woods is on his.

Woods shot a 67 to tie Wilson, who shot a 66, at seven-under 135. Harrington was tied with Rory Sabbatini, who shot a 70, and Bo Van Pelt and Marc Leishman, who each shot 69s.

Five weeks ago, Harrington was mired in 142nd place on the FedEx points list. His season had been a near free fall from the heights of 2008. He had missed six cuts in 14 tournaments and did not have a top-10 finish. But as he searched for answers, he kept an outlook that can only be described as buoyant. He did not enjoy missing cuts, but he seemed to be enjoying the process of trying to improve his golf swing.

Something clicked last month at the W.G.C.-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone, and Harrington has been threatening to win ever since. There have been setbacks. He had a two-stroke lead with four holes left at Bridgestone, but hit a wedge into the pond at the 16th and made triple bogey. He was in the hunt the next week at the P.G.A. Championship before hitting two balls in the water and making a quintuple-bogey 8 on Sunday.

Those two messy finishes resulted in a tie for second and a tie for 10th that had the silver lining of getting Harrington into the tour playoffs, as he rose to 66th place from 142nd in two weeks. Then he tied for second at the Barclays, the first playoff event, to move up to 14th. Last week he had the lead on the back nine at the Deutsche Bank Championship, but two penalty strokes from two hooked tee shots left him in a tie for fourth. That moved him up to seventh in the points standings.

Some would look at the blown chances as a reprise of the problems that Harrington had closing out tournaments before he began his major-championship binge in 2007. That is not his perspective.

“I had a great chance of winning last week,” he said. “It hurts. I had a great chance of winning in Akron. It hurt. I had a great chance at the P.G.A. I look back at that and go, ‘Wow.’ They all hurt.

“But if you don’t put yourself there — I could hide in the pack and shoot 66 the last day and finish fifth and everybody would say, ‘Well done.’ But I ain’t going to win the tournament there. If you do put yourself out there, if you put your neck on the line it gets chopped off every now and again. If you don’t want that, you’re not going to win as many tournaments as you can.”

Being knocked down has put Harrington of a mind to win as many times as he can. He jokes about the pressure he and everyone in contention will endure at the Tour Championship, with a $10 million bonus on the line.

“I do believe they should give out the cash on the 18th green,” he said with a grin. “Just sit it there just to have a good look at it. It would be great, like the World Series of Poker. We could take it in a wheelbarrow up to the clubhouse. Anything that falls out, it’s the caddie’s.”


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