Harrington relishes battle with Woods

CHASKA, Minn. -- Even on the stage, where he might be less comfortable, Padraig Harrington puts optimum effort into the task at hand. We know all about his never-ending quest for perfection at the golf course. But his preparation extends beyond the ropes.

Take the Tuesday night Champion's Dinner that Harrington hosted at Hazeltine National. As defending champion of the PGA Championship, Harrington was in charge of the festivities, and he did not shirk his responsibilities.

He gave his fellow PGA champions in attendance a Celtic drum as a keepsake, and came armed with some Irish humor that left the attendees chuckling at his jokes: "So, these two Irishmen walk out of a bar," he began -- then paused. "No, really, they walked."

Having fun with the Irish stereotype made it all the more impressive for those who know Harrington to be a teetotaler.

He, of course, approaches golf with a different kind of gusto, and the work of the past several months that has been questioned by so many is finally beginning to pay off.

Harrington's 4-under-par 68 during the first round of the PGA Championship left him just a stroke behind Tiger Woods and poised for another weekend showdown with the game's No. 1 player, who outlasted him Sunday at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

That was the first time Harrington contended in a tournament since shooting 32 on the back nine at Oakland Hills a year ago to snatch a major away from Sergio Garcia.

At the time, Harrington had won three of the past six majors, including two in a row. He had risen to No. 3 in the world. Woods was out of the picture recuperating from knee surgery, and Harrington was voted PGA Tour and European Tour player of the year.

Then came the work on Harrington's golf swing that he has patiently discussed about a million times, never wavering, never getting discouraged.

"For a good two and a half years, I've had a fault in my swing that I've been trying to get to the bottom of," Harrington said. "The last eight months I've been fully immersed in trying to figure out what it was."

Never mind that Harrington had won those majors with said fault. Simply speaking, Harrington did not like the fact that he cupped his left wrist at impact while moving laterally through the ball. He was trying to stop doing both at the same time.

Harrington obviously could play quite well doing this. But it bugged him. Sort of like a quarterback who completes 80 percent of his passes but doesn't throw a perfect spiral. The difference is, a quarterback isn't going to mess up his game to the degree Harrington did.

And so for most of the past year, the three-time major champion was a non-factor. He didn't have a top 10 on the PGA Tour for 17 straight tournaments. He missed five straight cuts heading into the British Open.

He kept getting knocked down, getting up and asking for more.

"He was always committed to doing what he was doing," said Harrington's caddie, Ronan Flood -- who is also his brother-in-law. "He never got frustrated, which is amazing. And the last four or five weeks, he's had a mind-set change."

That simply involved getting back to working on scoring. Harrington had become so consumed by work on his swing that he failed to play his tournament rounds with the idea of getting the ball in the hole the fastest.

"I'm a lot more at ease," Harrington said. "I know what I need to do, and I'm comfortable now to spend more time on the likes of my short game and things like that. And that's obviously paying dividends on the golf course."

He saw it last week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where Harrington opened the tournament with a 64, took a 3-shot lead into the final round against Woods, saw it gone in a matter of four holes, and then held a 1-stroke lead on the 16th tee.

That's when the infamous "on-the-clock" warning came from a rules official, and Harrington rushed his way to a triple-bogey 8. None other than Woods said that Harrington would not have made those mistakes had it not been for the warning, that at worst they would have gone to the 17th tee -- after Woods made a birdie -- with no more than a 1-shot lead for Woods.

Instead, the lead was 3, and the duel was over, one that Woods seems to wish had continued.

That is a dynamic that Harrington noticed as far back as three years ago, when he beat Woods in a playoff to capture the Dunlop Phoenix tournament in Japan. Woods uncharacteristically blew a 3-stroke lead with six holes to go before falling on the second sudden-death playoff hole.

"He wanted to be pushed; he wanted the competition," Harrington said.

Interesting that many golf observers believe that Woods has not had that kind of challenge from those wishing to overtake him. So many times, challengers faint in his presence.

Not Harrington, despite what you might think about that snowman last Sunday. Woods threw a 30 at him on the front nine to take a 2-shot lead while Harrington made all pars. Most would have been crushed. Harrington never wavered, and he held the lead five holes later.

He didn't get it done Sunday, but you get the sense he loved it. Just as he did Thursday during the opening round, when Harrington went nearly shot for shot with Woods.

"I think it pushes you," he said. "You have to go to a new level. That's what I like. You either play well or you don't, and Tiger brings that out. You have to go for your shots if you want to compete."

Harrington had a rough night after his finish at the Bridgestone. He thought about what could have been and lamented a missed opportunity. He struggled to sleep.

"But the minute I hit the practice round," he said, "I become a real optimist and start looking forward."

Perhaps eliciting a few laughs from his peers didn't hurt, either.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.