What we can learn from Harrington's revival

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In the oversized pantheon of unexplainable things — you know, Bigfoot, Stonehenge, why one sock always gets lost in the dryer — the following doesn’t offer much expansion to the whole mystery genre.

But here goes nothing anyway: There’s been an extreme number of professional golfers in recent years who have lost their game and gotten it back again.

No, that’s not entirely correct. We can break it down even more.

There’s been an extreme number of European professional golfers of the highest order who in recent years have unexplainably lost their game and perhaps just as bafflingly restored themselves to prominence.

The latest to join this list — one that already famously included Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood and Paul Casey, among others — is Padraig Harrington, who won the Portugal Masters on Sunday.

You probably recall Harrington as the quirky Irishman who won three of six major championships less than a decade ago. He was easily one of the world’s best players then, a self-made superstar who’d toiled on the game’s lower levels before climbing the ladder to success. In an era of Tiger Woods-imbued dominance, Harrington quickly became a standard for those who weren’t deemed prodigies and had to work a little harder to reach that next level.

What you might not understand is all the work he’d put into his game since the major triumphs — and how not all of it had come to fruition so quickly. Before winning the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour last year, he was ranked 297th in the world. Before winning the Portugal Masters, he hadn’t won a European Tour-sanctioned event since the last of those three majors, the 2008 PGA Championship.

Three years ago, in the Waste Management Phoenix Open interview room after a third-round 63, Harrington was asked a relatively benign question: Did you change your golf swing?

What followed was a 1,854-word explanation of everything he’d tried and endured. For comparison’s sake, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address checked in at a mere 272 words.

To make his long story short, Harrington provided insight not just into how he’d gone about trying to regain his best stuff, but why. It was fascinating introspection, about still loving the game and still trying to uncover its deepest secrets.

He’s hardly the only one to have voiced this type of contemplation.

Westwood rose to No. 4 in the world before bottoming out in the 266th position, then reversing field and ascending all the way to No. 1. Stenson has suffered two roller-coaster rides in his career, navigating those ebbs and flows back to prominence each time.

Casey is in the midst of enjoying a similar career resurgence. Ranked as low as 83rd in the world at one point early last year, he’s now 13th, with his T-21 result at the CIMB Classic on Sunday breaking a string of four consecutive finishes in the top four on tournament leaderboards.

“I questioned not if I was going to play golf, but certainly to what level I would play golf,” Casey explained recently. “Sometimes I believed I could get back to a certain level, and other times I didn’t see much hope. … I was injured, and I was going through a divorce. It was very, very tough to focus on the golf. It was so much going on in my life, it was difficult to focus on the golf. That was probably the toughest point.”

Maybe it’s not so unexplainable after all. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the rise and fall and rise again paths of these players have held so much in common, each being European and a former top-level competitor who endured golf’s humbling nature only to rebound to significance again. Maybe it speaks more to the game itself, and how consistency is the rarest commodity.

The biggest question surrounding the game’s highest level, in many circles, currently revolves around whether Woods, now 816th in the world, will ever enjoy a comeback that would make those of Westwood, Stenson, Casey and Harrington pale in comparison.

If nothing else, these stories — including the one which saw Harrington finally win again at age 45 this past weekend — should provide insight into both the how and why such revivals happen, offering a glimmering shred of optimism for Woods and any other player who hopes the roller coaster will once again soar to the highest heights.

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