Twenty-two years ago, Dr Liam Hennessy was working out at a gym when he bumped into Tadhg Harrington.
At the time Dr Hennessy was based at the Blackrock Clinic as Exercise Physiologist and also serving as Fitness Coach with Leinster Rugby and the National Academy.
Tadhg knew of Hennessy’s proficiency in his specialised field and enquired if he would take a look at his brother who he said was a golfer.
“I admitted that I knew very little about golf,” Dr Hennessy recalls, “but I agreed to meet his brother, Pádraig.
"When we met, I screened and assessed his fitness and the first thing I saw was that Pádraig was very keen to do whatever fitness work was required to allow him become a better golfer and to swing the club faster.
"That goal that has not changed to this day. He also wanted to do all he could to help reduce injury risk — again another goal that is ever present. So started a journey with him way back in 1997.”
Harrington is preparing for next week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch, getting ready to tee off on home soil for the first time as Ryder Cup captain and he knows it will bring its own pressures. But Hennessy, his long-serving mentor, is sure the Dubliner will handle all that comes his way — both next week and when Europe meets Team USA.
“I feel with the next Ryder Cup taking place in the USA, that in itself will be a huge challenge for the European team, regardless of who is captain,” his fitness coach maintains. “But there is no one better to rise to that challenge.”
“The respect Pádraig has from all players is borne out of the players on both sides knowing who he is and how he prepares, how detailed his approach will be and how competitive he is. He is strategic and he understands players first and foremost.
More than anyone else, he will grasp the nature of the challenge in terms of match play detail and the environment that they will be exposed to.
It helps Harrington that Dr Hennessy has a winning association with an Irish rugby grand Slam, three golf Majors, an All-Ireland hurling title, many successful international athletics careers, as well as an impressive academic career and the directorship at Setanta College, one of the world’s top sports coaching institutions.
But working as Harrington’s fitness coach has been as rewarding innings as any of the above.
One of the first things Hennessy helped Harrington with was in compiling a meticulously planned schedule for competition day. That routine began with 45 minutes of conditioning: then mobility and stability work and a water break.
Breakfast comprises of cereal, low fat milk, scrambled eggs, nuts, fruit, tea and toast and more water. Through the day — at holes one, three, six, nine, 12 and 15 — he’ll take snacks: Grains, nuts, bananas and water.
But evolvement is constant. Ahead of the Open at Lahinch all the up-to-date data available to them will be reviewed meticulously and then put to work in real time. It’s an intense and highly scientific process.
“Change takes places in all athletes over time and Pádraig is no exception,” Dr Hennessy says. “His physical functioning would change — as it does in all athletes as they progress — and this change has still to be matched with his need to work on his swing — we now call the body/swing connection principle.
"While we started with general mobility and strength, we progressed to synching the swing mechanics with what his size, shape and his physical function allowed.
“That meant working a lot on power and speed as well as posture. Also, as you well know a golfer is on the road for several weeks and that requires a travel programme. So, Pádraig would have his routine for a number of weeks — mainly mobility and stability early in the day and before playing and then his development or maintenance training later after practice or playing.
“Then when he would return home, we would re-evaluate his function and recovery and plan for the next phase based on how he responded to his previous programme. Over a 10-year period we remotely collected his recovery and stress status using heart rate data and other physiological/psychological measurements and through this we got to know about energy cost and demands of practice, play as well as travel. This all fed into his profile where we could make informed decisions about what went well and what did not.”
Harrington’s last European Tour win, though, was the Portugal Masters in 2016. With the burst of big hitting young college graduates steaming through it remains to be seen if the veteran Irishman can match their might in the future.
When Harrington returns to Lahinch he will make his first appearance on the famous County Clare links since winning there as an amateur in 1995. The 15-time European Tour winner won his national open in 2007
before going on to claim a maiden Major Championship at The Open Championship two months later.
He picked up an injury last November but has recovered to join a strong field for this year’s event, which is hosted by his old friend, Paul McGinley. And his fitness coach is sure he can compete once more with honours in the future.
“I have no doubt that Pádraig will win on tour again,” Dr Hennessy states. “Yes, there are many great players competing and many more young players who can drive the ball huge distances. But Pádraig has an enthusiasm and passion that has not been dented throughout the years — he has all the ingredients to be ready to perform and win on any given occasion.”
Each day, he uses a hand-held refractometer to determine if he is properly hydrated. When Dr Hennessy travels with the Irishman to tournaments, he will conduct daily blood, urine and stress testing on Harrington to ensure he is in peak physical condition.
“Along the way we have learned a lot of lessons. But one of the best lessons I learned in sport in general was not from the technological side of monitoring or training it was from Pádraig’s father, Paddy. We were watching Pádraig practice at his home in Dublin, when Paddy asked me what did I think the most important thing I did with Pádraig was.
“I spoke about longevity in the game and Paddy listened carefully and replied: ‘In my book the most important thing is knowing what not to do.’ Today I am still reminded of that simple and insightful statement.
By knowing what not to do, the choice or selection of options becomes much more informed and focused on what will benefit the athlete. No two are the same and no one is similar to Pádraig.
“Pádraig is a strength-based athlete. In other words, he has great basic strength and through its conversion to power he can still keep up with many of the younger golfers who have terrific natural speed. In fact, there was a time when his speed-strength was greater than most Irish Rugby players. That’s still his big physical quality even today and while we work on what his functional/fitness screen tells us, we also want to keep the basics of mobility and strength in place.
“You won’t be surprised to hear there are few athletes that I know from any sport who have a work-capacity like him. Both his mental and physical capacities are phenomenal from an athlete who is just about to enter his fourth decade of competing at the highest level.
“People know that Pádraig is always working on some aspect of his game, but his willingness to explore and be open to technology and innovation in technology in sport is incredible.
“He was the first golfer to use GPS tracking measurement units to record his golf swing impact on the body. Pádraig was experimenting with these long before teams started to wear them during competition.
"And from one analysis completed several years ago we found the cumulative impact load that he experienced during a round was equal to the cumulative impact load experienced by some rugby players during matches.
“Pádraig’s openness and inquiry into the demands of the game of golf and his tolerance to these sets him apart from other athletes. His enthusiasm to seek out what works for him as he strives to reset, recover and improve has also involved and still does completing physical and physiological profiling or testing, profiling his blood health, his parasympathetic system, muscle activation assessment, as well as his 3D swing analysis.
“Dr Brian Moore and his team at ORRECO have been assessing Pádraig’s wellbeing for over 10 years now and the technology they used then is now more accessible. But no matter what happens, good or bad, Pádraig always stays positive and always bounces back — from injury and blips.