Getting it back

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Padraig Harrington had that look in his eyes again. The same steely gaze as when he won the British Open last year. The same fierce intensity as when he won the ’08 PGA Championship. Except this time he was beating balls at the range.

Halfway through the 2009 season, Harrington still is searching for his major-winning form. All the “Paddy Slam” talk slammed to a halt when he flamed out at The Masters, finishing T-35. Most disconcerting has been his recent play. He missed the cut last week in Memphis. He missed the cut the week before that at The Memorial. And before that? The 37-year-old Irishman missed the cut at the Irish Open.

This isn’t a three-tournament rough patch, either. Harrington doesn’t have a top-10 finish in 12 starts on the PGA Tour this season. It’s reason for concern, but Harrington’s not hitting the panic button. Instead, speaking Tuesday during preparations for the U.S. Open at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, he sounds like a man comfortable in his own skin, one who has been down this road before and knows where he is going.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” Harrington said. “I did have good intentions. I’m comfortable with it. I’m going to be patient. I know where I am.

“That’s very important. I do actually know where I am in my game. I know – how will I put this – it’s not saying I have all the answers, but I’m certainly well aware of things and I’m comfortable with that. And I understand the process that would bring me back to form.”

So he beats balls. At the St. Jude Classic, Harrington’s range sessions were prolific. He banged bag after bag of balls, primarily hitting a variety of different drivers, and testing each with the close attention of a watchmaker. Some were different brands; some had different grips designed to help him hit a cut. He’s been fiddling with his swing all season, and the numbers don’t lie: he ranks 169th in driving accuracy and 164th in greens in regulation this season. After spraying his tee shots in the first round at Memphis, a frustrated Harrington said, “I don’t think that driver will see the light of day again.”

So he continues to search. Harrington is an admitted constant tinkerer. It’s been his way since he was 15.

“I don’t think I would be comfortable unless I was changing something,” he said. “I think guys who stay constant are on a slippery slope to retirement.”

Harrington isn’t the first to overhaul his swing after winning a major. Ian Baker-Finch and Michael Campbell tried and failed miserably. Then there’s Tiger Woods, who did so after winning the 1997 Masters by 12 strokes.

“People thought I was crazy for that,” Woods said. “I said ‘Just wait. Just be patient with it. It will come around’ and in 1999 and 2000 I won 17 times.”

Woods changed his swing again in 2004, then faced another round of criticism. But Woods has had the last laugh, winning five more majors since 2005.

Even the best have, at times, taken one step back to make the next leap forward. Harrington is preaching patience, that it’s just a matter of time. But will the stars align this week at the U.S. Open?

“Obviously I’m not confident because of what’s (happened) the last couple of weeks,” Harrington said. “It’s too late – as we say at home, the lightning storm is too late to get up and patch the roof. So I’ve got to accept what I’ve got this week.”

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