On the practice range, they watched Padraig Harrington. Not fans, but a few golfers, looking on in bewildered wonder. Every ball he hit in Indonesia last week was prefaced by roughly eight practice swings. Like a man haunted by the act of rehearsal. He's world No. 264, he used to win Majors, he's 43, he's trying to find his perfect self.
He's also off his brilliant head.
Harrington wins in Indonesia and says he's going to try and make almost 100,000 swings in the off-season. Roughly 2,000 a day. For 49 days. Lam Chih Bing, the Singaporean pro, who on his toughest days hit 1,000 balls, shakes his head smilingly down the phone line. He was watching in Indonesia and says of Harrington's plan in a tone that is part awe and part disbelief: "It's crazy. That's a lot of swings." Lam is almost 38 and says "my body couldn't take that".
Welcome to obsession, welcome to the off-season.
Welcome to Instagram, where athletes post photographs and videos of themselves in training. Caroline Wozniacki boasts about her leg press. Maybe this is fun, maybe there's a small message attached: I am working. Are you?
Welcome to pain. To a picture of Andy Murray in Miami, lying in the sand, spent, wasted. His trainer stands nearby. Laughing.
Somewhere next May, after a million rallies in 2015, Murray might win a match he shouldn't only because of the miles he's collected in his tank, only because he vomited in December.
Welcome to sacrifice, which is when famous folk embrace austerity. Basketball's Jimmy Butler told Sports Illustrated that in the summer off-season he rented a house a Spartan might flinch from inhabiting: no cable purposely. No Internet. "Whenever we got bored, all we would do is go to the gym."
Welcome to being better which is an ache, a compulsion, a neurosis. Yesterday I asked shooter Jasmine Ser if she had ever practised on Christmas Day. "Yes," she said. "And on my birthday. And on Valentine's Day." This month, says national coach Solomon Casoojee, the Singapore hockey team will be training in some form on Christmas Day. They're not quite familiar with off-seasons. Ask Casoojee how many days off they've had this year and he says: "Pretty much zero."
Welcome to ruthlessness. Athletes will loll in the sun and sneak chocolates, yet they're constantly making decisions that may define their year. Tennis players Simona Halep and Eugenie Bouchard celebrated quantum leaps in progress this year by changing their coaches. Craziness? Or are they just thinking: thank you for getting me to this level. Now who will take me to the next?
Welcome to old-fashioned sweat. Want to understand an athlete, forget the competition arena. Come to practice in the off-season. Bring a chair.
Rifle shooters at work will draw brilliant, repetitive designs on a target. Like golfers, their rehearsals look identical, yet not always. Subtle changes are work. Small alterations in trigger pressure. Tiny modifications of a follow through. Intensity is meeting invention.
They test diets. They examine themselves in labs. They experiment with new equipment. Some of them will err. Over-practise. Over-tinker. Overthink. Overdo the weights. Everything is a fine, delicate line. They're driven by ambition yet also by insecurity: they slave partly because, somewhere else, so is someone else. There's nothing quite like the fear of being left behind.
Welcome to loneliness. The off-season comes with no applause, only satisfaction. Interrupted only by the clunk of weights, improvement is built in silence. There is no single magic workout, no single perfect golf swing. As Harrington told Sports Illustrated in February: "The secret is, there is no secret. The secret is in the search."
That's what his 100,000 practice swings is about. Discovery of himself while investigating a game. Maybe he will find something. Maybe this is what illuminates sport, this insanity, this pure commitment, this undying optimism amid failure that yes, dammit, next year will be better.
Welcome to hope.
This article was first published on Dec 16, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.