But no one told Pádraig Harrington. While others had slipped away quietly – almost accepting their fate, Harrington remained determined and his steely eyes stayed focused on returning to the top of the professional game.
And so it happened once more last week when Harrington won his seventh PGA title, the 31st of his pro career at the Honda Classic on the very difficult PGA National course against what was the best field of the year to date. His victory in dramatic circumstances would have surprised many, but not Harrington. He had been preparing a long time for this moment.
For many of his peers on the PGA Tour, Pádraig has never shown his true form. They are simply too young to understand just how good a competitor he was in his prime but from the very start of his professional career Harrington set about redefining not only Irish but European golf in an era when the game was dominated by US players like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
By the time Harrington turned pro, Ireland had already produced its fair share of great golfers, but here was a man determined to forge his own destiny in golf. He was there to compete with and beat the very best. His career would be judged by his status in the game not in Ireland or Europe but the World.
Success initially did not come easily for Harrington. His early career was a steep learning curve, full of promise but littered with what could have been career-defining mistakes, but instead of retreating, he stayed patient in the belief that success would come.
When he won his third major championship in 2008, he was at the height of his powers. All of his championships had been won in a cauldron where his brain had to process and deliver every nugget of information smoothly. Back then you felt Pádraig was relishing pitting his skills against the best.
But then, nearly all at once after his USPGA victory, he plummeted from the summit, tumbling uncontrollably down the rankings. So where did it all go wrong?
Was it his obsession with controlling the flight of a golf ball? His endless pursuit of betterment? His tough worldwide playing schedule?
While there have been thousands of hours and words spent debating this subject what we do know is that golf is a fickle game where confidence is a pre-requisite. In no other sport can a player fall so far so fast.
As Harrington’s game began to disintegrate slowly (most notably his short game, his most renowned area of expertise) one could be forgiven for fearing he was destined for a life roaming the mini-tours around the world searching to regain that winning formula once again. There were always the occasional rays of light, but time and again, it seemed that putting four competitive rounds together was simply a bridge too far.
How those barren years must have challenged Harrington’s self-confidence we will never know, but during that time he never dodged an opportunity to prove himself once more – embracing every challenge head on.
What was crucial was the unconditional support of his “inner circle” of confidants. The most powerful thing a player will ever hear is affirmation from his wife, caddy or coach, all of whom have shared his dreams and have remained steadfastly focused on his form returning one day and making all the sacrifices worthwhile. And Harrington has such support in spades.
No one can ever challenge Harrington’s ability to cope with the pressure of winning tournaments and championships. Nor can they doubt his mental toughness in forcing his way back into the winner’s enclosure after such a long barren spell. In order to win more regularly one hopes Pádraig understands he doesn’t have to be perfect. Instead he needs to be in a neutral zone where he stops questioning his routine and every detail of every shot.
In time Harrington’s greatness will be defined by how many tournaments and Majors he has won but people should never forget how well he played in his prime. In 2007/8 he was one of very few players capable of competing with and beating Tiger Woods regularly. Harrington has now experienced the fine line between success and failure in golf but hopefully he will be the better for this experience.
Where once he faced the full fury of his own mind, hopefully he will use that mind to again “smell the flowers” as he bids to regain his rightful position at the top table of professional golf.