The magic touch that has defined Padraig Harrington’s double Major winning season deserted him so utterly at windy Valderrama yesterday that the Dubliner will now require a feat of escapology worthy of Houdini if he is to lift the Harry Vardon Trophy for the second time.
On a day when the 57-man field averaged 73.65 strokes in the first round of the Volvo Masters, Harrington tellingly failed to make even one birdie for the first time this season, opening with a five-over par 76 that left him 11 strokes behind Denmark’s Soren Kjeldsen and a lowly 43rd in a tournament where he must finish first or second to deny Sweden’s Robert Karlsson (73) the Order of Merit title.
It was Harrington’s worst effort since he carded a six-over par 77 in the third round of the US Open at Torrey Pines in June and while he was his usual, defiant self afterwards, his opening gambit has severely dented his chances of winning the money title for the second time in three years.
“It was just one of those days,” said Harrington, who was always on the back foot after dropping three shots in his first five holes. “The area of the game that worries me going out on this golf course is off the tee and I drove it great. But I misjudged half a dozen chip shots. When you get on a run like that, later on in the round, you are trying to get home with the least amount of damage.”
Unfortunately for the 37-year-old Dubliner, poor tee shots at the 13th and 15th cost him two more strokes and he conceded that he must now go low at least once to have any chance of lifting the Harry Vardon Trophy for the second time.
As defending champion Justin Rose went out first and shot an 80 that left him propping up the field, Harrington said: “Gone are the chances of playing nice and solid and steady for four days. One round out of the next three is going to have to be low. Whichever one I don't mind but it looks I need to shoot a low one at some stage.
“I’m very accepting of what happened today. That is the nature of the game in a gusty wind on a golf course like this. You can’t control everything. If I sound fatalistic, I am actually intrigued by it.
“How you can get momentum one day and on another, you can’t seem to do anything about it, your putts stay on the high side, you underclub one hole and overclub on the next. Balls go through the wind, then they don’t go through the wind.
“It’s intriguing. You’ll get a day when everything goes right and you’ll get a day when everything goes away from you. It’s just strange this game, isn’t it. It happens like that.”
Lined by hundreds of cork oak trees, Valderrama is renowned as a course where it is difficult to chase, as England’s Lee Westwood ominously explained after carding a one-under par 70 that left very much alive in his bid for the victory he needs to overhaul Karlsson in the race for the money title.
“In this tournament you can only really shoot yourself in the foot the first round,” Westwood said. “Getting off to a bad start here is always difficult. It’s not a golf course you can chase on.”
Beaten in a play-off for this title last year, blond Dane Kjeldsen took up where he left off when he carded eight birdies in a sensational 65 that gave him a three-stroke lead over world number three Sergio Garcia with Englishmen Anthony Wall and David Lynn the only other players to break 70.
Kjeldsen is sponsored by the troubled Icelandic bank Landsbanki, prompting Westwood to joke: “No wonder he’s having to shoot low. Six under around here today, that’s phenomenal. He obviously feels good around here. It fits his eye and he likes playing it.”
Order of Merit leader Karlsson was a happy man after he birdied two of his last four holes for a 73. And he promised a helpful marshal “as many beers as he wants” after he had crawled through thorn bushes to find his ball on the 11th, where he eventually scrambled a vital par five.
But the course was not as forgiving for the Irish challengers with Darren Clarke lamenting his lack of accuracy with the putter as he carded a level par 71 that could have been several strokes lower.
“I hit it close so many times today but I just haven’t quite managed to take my chances,” said Clarke, who is tied for seventh despite taking 32 putts. “I’m just lacking my feel to read the greens."
It was a similar story on the greens for Graeme McDowell, who is tied for tenth place after a one over par 72 while Damien McGrane and Rory McIlroy signed for three over par 74s.
McIlroy played well most of the day but had two sevens on his card - a double bogey at the par-five fourth, where he found water with his approach, and a triple bogey at the 16th, where he tangled with the trees.
Peter Lawrie confessed that he simply missed too many fairways as he carded a four over par 75 while Paul McGinley dropped four strokes in his last four holes as he crashed to a 76 that left him tied for 43rd with Harrington.