PNC Championship

I asked Padraig Harrington for his 'quick' rollback take. He proceeded to speak for seven minutes straight

December 14, 2023
1798784085

Sam Greenwood

Amidst a tidal wave of scorching hot takes after the USGA and R&A announced a universal golf ball rollback two weeks ago, there was Padraig Harrington shining like a beacon in the night. His 13-tweet thread on X, formerly known as Twitter, caused hundreds of thousands to stop and read. Normally, 13-tweet threads are to be avoided like the plague, but not when one comes from a three-time major champion whose golfing brain is constantly operating at 100-mph.

Harrington, now 52, is often used as the prime example of a player who has benefitted most from the modern golf ball going so far. The Irishman ranked first on the PGA Tour Champions last season with an average driving distance of 302.4 yards. Twenty years ago, in the prime of his career, Harrington averaged just 290.8.  

While the ball, and modern clubs, certainly play a role in his incredible gains, Harrington has also worked tirelessly with Golf Digest 50 Best Teacher Michael Jacobs to gain maximum speed. I wondered if Harrington took offense to the narrative that he hits it so much farther now at 52 just because of the ball and not because of the hours he's put in to get to where he is now. An opportunity arose on Wednesday at the PNC Championship to ask him that very question.

In the most on-brand move ever, Harrington then proceeded to rant for seven consecutive minutes, and I'm not sure if he ever answered the original question. 

"The one thing about the rollback is it's distinctly different—the attitude in the United States than the attitude, certainly in Ireland and the rest of Europe," Harrington said. "You guys hate the USGA. We actually love the R&A. Golf isn't an exclusive game in Europe. Some golf courses, we have the whole gambit. The majority of golf courses in Ireland are just regular member's golfer courses. Yes, you need to be rich to play golf -- rich in time. The people who play golf in Ireland are people who have time. Taxi drivers, policemen, anybody on shift work, and obviously people who are wealthy enough that they can make some spare time, but everybody plays in Ireland. And we all know a golf course that we grew up on that has had to change its golf holes, move part of the course, actually move the whole golf course at times because the ball is just going too far. 

"And it's not 98 percent of golfers. It's the one percent of amateurs, the young adults that we want to play the game, they can hit it," he continued. "And when they miss, they miss big. It goes off the golf course, it pitches in the middle of other fairways. It's dangerous. They can't get insurance, they have to change the holes. So, I know there is a bit of pain involved for the majority, but it's for the greater good of the game. And to be honest, five percent was soft. Ten percent would have been a fair hit, but five percent is really drawing a line in the sand. It's just saying, in five year's time, we'll have eaten that five percent up anyway. It's a line in the sand that says if it starts creeping again, we're going to roll it back again."

Harrington then proceeded to make the sustainability argument, saying that in the U.S. we have far more land to work with than in countries like Ireland. His local course in Dublin, Grange Golf Club, opens with a par 3 that once took a 3-wood to find the green. Now, Harrington says, it's a sand wedge. 

"That's a constant theme, so it's very important for the rest of the world to roll it back. I'm sorry you guys in the U.S. feel that way. There is that attitude in the U.S. that the USGA is representing the very exclusive, old school courses. That's not the case," he said. "They are representing everybody, and I guarantee you the R&A, people have a much better view of them. They're just trying to make the game grow for everyone."

As for taking offense to folks saying Harrington hits it so long at 52 now because of the golf ball, he believes they are wrong to use him as an example. 

"I don't worry about me," Harrington said. "I'm actually in the same place -- I was a long hitter, but not as long as the biggest hitters. The biggest hitters didn't play when I played. Now they do, and I'm still in the same place, I'm a long hitter but I'm not quite as long as the really long guys. Some of those really long guys are better players now, and I think there's more of them too. 

"The problem the game has is what's coming. Everyone says, 'oh, look at Cameron Champ, it's amazing.' There's loads of these guys, and faster, in college. They're all over, and I'm not saying they're players, but eventually we're going to get a guy with 210-mph ball speed who is able to play. Up to now anybody who has got to that speed just can't play golf, but that doesn't mean we're not going to get one. Like Tiger, he came out and he was a 190-mph ball speed guy -- not that we hadn't seen 190 ball speed before, we just hadn't seen a 190 ball speed who could play golf."

As another example, Harrington used Hank Kuehne, who averaged 321 yards off the tee all the way back in 2003. Harrington believes the world convinced Kuehne that he was wrong, that if he hit it in trouble as a long hitter it was because he hit driver. Then, Harrington says, a player named Rory McIlroy came along and changed everyone's way of thinking. 

"He [McIlroy] just hit driver, and all of a sudden the other long hitters, I'm talking DJ [Dustin Johnson], I'm talking Bubba [Watson], J.B. Holmes, they were big hitters at the time, Gary Woodland. They all changed their style of golf once they saw Rory change. I played with DJ his first ever [Players Championship] at TPC Sawgrass. He got in as a late alternate, and we're on the tee and this kid, I had no idea who he was and he had an iron in his hand and we're kind of like 'oh, look at this lad, he's nervous isn't he.' And then you see this iron coming out and you go, woah, that's a bit different. There's not a chance in the world that DJ would tee it up with an iron at TPC Sawgrass now, he's hitting driver. That's how much the game has changed."

Ultimately, Harrington says, we're going to see a player who is cruising between 135 and 140-mph clubhead speed who will be able to play. The rollback should be able to hold everything in place as is, but it won't be able to stop the young guys coming. Harrington believes we haven't even come close to the maximum physical capability, hence why the rollback is necessary. 

He then closed with an unbelievably bold prediction. 

"You know what the biggest change is going to be?" he asked. "I'm going to say it here -- it's going to be the ladies game. They hit too many fairways now, so there is a huge advantage going forward for somebody who comes out there with 175-mph ball speed. There is going to be a lady coming out with 175 ball speed who can be a real competitor, and guess what? She's going to be able to play with the men, and compete."

To hear Harrington's full take, watch the video below: