Harrington thumbs-up for Valderrama

THE THUMB injury sustained by Pádraig Harrington in the World Matchplay has almost fully healed and he is in good shape going into this week's Volvo Masters at Valderrama.

Harrington won the prestigious event in 2001, but it was played then at Montecastillo near Jerez.

The Masters has since returned to its spiritual home at Valderrama, and that's a different proposition for Harrington as he has never done well there. The best he recalls is fifth in the American Express WGC in 2000 and even that was mainly due to a good first round. He has, however, arrived in Spain on the back of a week off and a series of excellent performances, highlighted by victories in the German Masters and the Ryder Cup.

"The thumb has healed well and while it's still affecting me, it's been improving daily and should be fine by Thursday," Pádraig reported.

"I have been able to practise but made sure to keep the thumb off the club. People ask me if I was rash or silly to take on the particular shot. Well, it certainly wasn't rash as I always go for the shot I see, but I suppose I could have played it differently. Silly? Perhaps, because I didn't see how the tree was going to interfere as much as it did. I am seriously relieved I didn't do a lot more damage."

Valderrama may not have been kind to him in the past, but Harrington still likes the course.

"It's always in fantastic condition and it's a good, tough test where placement of the tee shot is very important. The greens are difficult but I believe they favour my style of putting. They are bent grass with a lot of slope and very quick, and I like that. I don't know why I haven't done well there in the past because I enjoy shaping the ball in the wind and holding it into the wind and you need that at Valderrama. I'm looking forward to the week."

Harrington has always enjoyed playing at this stage of the season. After the Volvo Masters, he moves on to the US equivalent next week, the Tour Championship in Houston, Texas, an event confined to the top 30 on their money list. From there he has a week off before tackling the World Cup of Golf with Paul McGinley in Seville. It's then on to South Korea, and there is a logical and fascinating reason for going there. He strongly believes in defending any of his titles and so was always going to take in the Hong Kong Open on December 4-7. And as he will be in that neck of the woods anyway, he opted for Korea on the previous week; even though he has been around the globe countless times, he has never been there.

After that he makes his way to California for Tiger Woods's Target World Challenge, in which he scored a memorable victory two years ago. He then takes his customary winter break, nine weeks in this case, but from there on it's going to be a much different scenario for the 33-year-old Dubliner. He has decided to become a full member of the US Tour and that means playing four extra tournaments in the States. To make that possible, he has opted out of two tournaments in Asia and the Middle East, as well as the Dubai Desert Classic. Instead of hightailing it out of California after the Accenture World Match Play Championship for Dubai at the beginning of March, he will play the Doral and Honda tournaments in Florida.

"It doesn't make for any more work and I believe it will be a better organised schedule with less long haul travel," he says.

The new programme, he hopes, will also help him to better prepare for the majors, which are becoming more and more important to him.

It will be make your mind up time for Harrington's caddy Ronan Flood come the end of the year. Flood - a banker who took leave of absence from AIB last May to take over when Dave McNeilly was sacked - and Harrington are gelling so well that they haven't discussed the situation.

Padraig insists: "We have plenty of time. It's been working well and I'm happy to continue the arrangement. Caddying is a fantastic career and lifestyle if you're on a good bag but I don't want to take him away from his career in banking unless that's what Ronan wants."

However, as if to sum up Flood's present dilemma, Harrington recounts the following story: "There we were on the 12th tee in the final round of the Amex at Mount Juliet. The rain is absolutely bucketing down and Ronan has about 10 different jobs to do, trying to keep the clubs dry, the gloves dry, his player dry and so on. It should have been absolutely miserable for him but he looked at me with a big smile and said 'still beats the bank'."

So Harrington goes into the final couple of months of the year with his confidence on a high. He looks back on the Ryder Cup as the highlight but also insists: "It's been my best season where learning more about the swing, the mental side of the game, the short game, are concerned. The technique is coming easier, I'm worrying less, and I feel I'm on the right track."

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