PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – The smile was back.
The toothy grin worn to a trio of major titles, the one that Padraig Harrington once took with him during his trip into golf’s stratosphere, was on full display Thursday at the Honda Classic.
With winds whipping across PGA National, Harrington opened with a 3-under 67, his lowest score on the PGA Tour in nearly nine months. A full decade removed from his Honda win across the street at the Country Club of Mirasol, he's two shots off the 18-hole pace.
At age 43, Harrington’s weathered look is that of a man whose career approaches its third decade, but he strode to the podium with the confidence of a player equipped with plenty of experience in blustery conditions.
“On a windy day, momentum is bigger than any other day,” Harrington said.
Harrington had no issue creating momentum in the opening round, countering his lone bogey of the day at No. 2 with a birdie at No. 3. He added three more circles to his scorecard, including a pair of birdies across his final three holes to move onto the first page of the leaderboard.
Much has changed for the Irishman since his major wins in 2007 and 2008; following last year’s Wyndham Championship, his five-year PGA Tour exemption based on his ’08 victories expired. While he had a one-time career money list exemption at his disposal, Harrington chose to save it, opting instead to patch together a schedule based on sponsor invites and past-champion status.
Thus far, the strategy hasn’t panned out. Harrington has missed the cut in five of eight starts this season and remains in search of his first top-50 finish.
“I came out starting the year with really high expectations, and I fell right back into struggling,” Harrington said. “I was confident in doing the right things. I just really, really struggled.”
Even the most talented golfers can wander in search of that elusive spark, the moment when things finally click. For Harrington, it came last week during, of all things, a third-round 76 at the Northern Trust Open. His mental approach to shots began to change, and he bounced back with a final-round 71 at Riviera.
The confidence from his West Coast epiphany has carried over into this week, although Harrington also cited another source of inspiration – a recent “summons” to dinner from mental coach Bob Rotella, with whom Harrington has worked for most of his career.
“I think we’ve had the intervention before,” Harrington said. “He’s like the school teacher. He tells you, and it’s up to you to do your homework and do it right.”
The two met Tuesday night at a restaurant near PGA National, their first chance to connect in person since the end of 2014. Rotella wanted an opportunity to chat openly with his longtime pupil without the distractions that a more-populated setting might create.
“I said, 'Let’s go to dinner together,'” Rotella said. “I just wanted a chance to get together and really spend a bunch of time.”
The issue, according to Rotella, has been convincing Harrington to embrace the notion that added practice does not necessarily mean better results – that less, sometimes, can be more.
“He’s been taking so much time off. I mean, we’ve been trying to get him to forever,” Rotella said. “Someone finally documented for him that when he’s more rested, he has more club head speed, so he liked that. Wouldn’t do it for the sake of doing it.”
Harrington has always been seen as a player who tinkers with his game, making changes that led to three major titles in the span of 13 months but also changes that have contributed to his subsequent decline. He won on the Asian Tour in December to end a four-year worldwide winless drought, but his last PGA Tour title remains the 2008 PGA Championship. He teed off this week at No. 297 in the world rankings.
Having successfully battled the crosswinds on the Champion Course for 18 holes, Harrington hopes to build upon his opening round as he seeks his first top-10 finish on Tour in nearly two years.
“When I wasn’t playing great, I kept walking off the golf course feeling like I played 70 shots and signed for 73 shots,” he said. “Today, I feel like I played in 70 but signed for 67, so that’s a nice place to be.”
Rotella noted that when Harrington is at his best, he plays the game devoid of mid-round swing keys and mental cues.
“He doesn’t think about any technical stuff on the golf course. He really plays golf,” Rotella said. “Playing golf is just seeing the shot and hitting it, not judging. Just go get it and hit it again until you run out of holes.”
On a day when many of the game’s best were humbled by difficult conditions, Harrington displayed the poise and control of a savvy veteran. Rotella remains optimistic that his pupil’s world ranking will soon be a more accurate reflection of his ability.
“The good news with him is that we’ve seen it before,” he said. “Now it’s a question of if he can sustain it.”