PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Padraig Harrington rarely goes the conventional route.
He once wore glasses to help him read greens, even though he had 20/20 vision. He became a Royal & Ancient ambassador, and then began using a belly putter when the R&A was proposing to outlaw the use of them.
So when it came to his thoughts on Tiger Woods, expect the unexpected.
For starters, Harrington thinks Woods has a game that is good enough to win on the PGA Tour except that Woods might not believe it.
“A year ago, you would have said physically he didn’t have the game to come back and win. But he certainly has it now,” Harrington said. “If you turned around and gave most of the field his game, they would be so chuffed with it that they go out and win straightaway with it. His game to him will never feel like it was back in the heyday.
“When you’re used to hitting shots that are 10 out of 10, and now he’s hitting 9 out of 10, it doesn’t feel as good,” he said. “If you were used to hitting shots at an 8 and now you’re hitting it like Tiger — a 9 out of 10 — you’d be loving it. If I turned around and hit the golf ball like Tiger Woods this week, I’d win because I’d love it.”
Harrington believes that Woods can win again — he also thinks he’ll win another major — except that it won’t feel as good.
Woods might dispute that.
He is playing the Honda Classic, the third stop in his return from a fourth back surgery. Woods, who has not won since August 2013, and if he fails to win at PGA National this week, it will be his 27th consecutive start in full, official PGA Tour events without winning. That would break the mark for his previous longest drought on the PGA Tour — 26 starts between the BMW Championship in 2009 and the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2012.
That led to another observation by Harrington, which runs opposite of what most people believe. That includes Jack Nicklaus, who has said in recent years that the competition in golf is greater and deeper than it has ever been.
That’s hard to argue. Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy have taken turns at No. 1 over the last two years. The last 10 majors have been won by different players. Golf is getting better and younger.
That has led to questions whether Woods could have dominated today the way he did a generation ago. Harrington believes Woods might have more than his 79 victories on the PGA Tour and his 14 majors.
“He would have been better in his heyday if he had more good players around him to push him,” Harrington said.
Woods was at his best in 2000 when he won nine times on the PGA Tour, the final three majors of the year (he tied for fifth in the Masters) and won five tournaments by five shots or more. That includes his 15-shot victory in the U.S. Open and his eight-shot victory in the British Open at St. Andrews. Woods made it a sweep of the majors by winning the Masters in 2001, and then he slowed. Woods won only five times on the PGA Tour that year.
“He got very conservative after 2001 because he could win with a conservative game,” Harrington said. “Before that, he used to hit some spectacular shots, and I think you would have seen more of that if there were more good players around him to keep pushing him.”
The biggest change the Irishman sees is a warm and fuzzy Woods.
Woods turned 42 at the end of last year and he is treated like a mentor by the youngsters who now occupy the top 10 spots in the world. Harrington was stunned at Torrey Pines last month when he watched Woods walk onto the range and stopped to visit.
“Stopped and had a couple of chats with me,” Harrington said. “He was enjoying himself.”
Harrington must have wondered if he was talking to Woods or Fred Couples, who was famous for talking more than practicing.
“Clearly, he doesn’t have the intensity that he had 10 years ago,” Harrington said. “That intensity 10 years ago certainly created an aura. He’s mellowed. That’s just the way he has changed. And can he be the guy he was 10 years ago, just like me? He can’t be. Things have changed in who he is as a person.”
Woods sees that differently.
“Well, I’m not in pain,” Woods said with a smile. “Yeah, I am a lot happier. I’ve been struggling for quite some time, probably just near five years now.”
That’s only partially true.
Woods was in full health for much of the previous 10 years and rarely held court on the range, at least for very long.
Everyone has an opinion of Woods. Most players believe he can win again, which is the prudent thing to say because imagine the headlines if someone said they didn’t think he could win. Harrington is certain he will win another major, something Woods hasn’t done in 10 years.
Meanwhile, Woods keeps playing. He missed the cut last week at Riviera. He has never missed the cut over 36 holes in consecutive weeks in his career.