Written by Brian Keogh.
Pádraig Harrington has had three great father figures in his career — his father, Paddy, his swing coach, Bob Torrance, and Dr Bob Rotella.
The first two meant everything in his formation as a person and a swinger of a club, but mental coach Rotella’s influence has arguably been as crucial to his success as a player.
For Harrington, there is no greater expression of what Rotella’s influence meant to him than the Open at Carnoustie in 2007, where he double bogeyed the 72nd hole yet still had the mental strength to pick himself up and walk out for the play-off feeling invincible.
Their fascinating story began in 1997, when the Dubliner hooked up with the University of Virginia Director of sports psychology after reading his book, ‘Golf is Not a Game of Perfect’ and spent two days in his basement. Talking.
Carnoustie was the culmination of over a decade of talking and chatting and while their relationship has developed from a professional, doctor-client dynamic and morphed into a close friendship, those early days remain key. While Rotella knew the inner workings of Harrington’s mind better than almost anyone else, he was still amazed by his pupil’s mental strength in his darkest hour that Sunday on the North Sea coast of Scotland. After hitting two balls into the Barry Burn at the 72nd hole, Harrington produced one of the great recovery pitch and putts of all time to make the play-off with Sergio Garcia.
As Harrington said: “Bob once wrote he’d rather meet somebody with great dreams rather than a great person with no dreams. It’s really about what you believe you can achieve. And that’s what limits you.” Speaking just hours afterwards, Rotella felt it was going to be a good week from the word go but it was what Harrington said to him rather than what he said to Harrington that stuck in his mind.
“You could really tell it was there,” Rotella said. “We worked for a long time on self-acceptance of anything and everything that happens and no matter how hard you work, you are going to make mistakes. It is a game. And you have got to accept it. And to watch him hit two balls in the water and then stay cool and then get that ball up and down was something I will never forget. I spoke to him on the putting green as we were waiting for the play-off, I said to him: ‘If there is anything about yourself you have ever wanted to know, you just found out with that up and down. You have what it takes’.
“We don’t want to be thinking about winning on the golf course, we don’t want to think about not winning. We don’t want to get excited if you get off to a great start. We don’t want to get down if you have a bad start. I don’t want you to care what anyone else is doing. I told Padraig, ‘I want you to run out of holes like a track man running through the tape.’ If a track man starts slowing down before the tape, he loses time. I want you to just run out of holes and then find out how you did.”
Visualisation is something Harrington has perfected over the years like a Zen master. At Carnoustie, he put it into practice.
On the eve of the final round, he was already visualising himself with the trophy.
“He started talking like he was going to win, which is unusual for him,” said Rotella, who was staying at the house Harrington had rented. “And then the last thing he said was: ‘I am going to my room and I am just going to do some visualising’.
“When we went to the putting green before the play-off I just went over and told him: ‘You just found out everything you wanted to know about yourself.’
“And Padraig looked at me and he said, ‘I’m good. When you see me out in the play-off, you are going to think I’m waving but I am raising the Claret Jug to the sky.’
“Oh boy. I have never heard him say that. I said wow — he is ready. Go back and watch the tape of 17 in the play-off and you’ll see him doing a bunch of waving. He told me while he was waiting for the play-off, he is not waving, he is raising the Claret Jug to the sky.
“When he said that to me, I thought, ‘Well, yeah. He’s okay’.”