Harrington hits route 66 in Bermuda

Padraig Harrington leads the PGA Grand Slam of Golf thanks to an opening 66. Picture courtesy of PGA of America/Montana PritchardPadraig Harrington couldn’t resist talking about his putting despite firing seven birdies in a 66 to take the lead in the 36-hole PGA Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda.

Bidding to become just the second European winner since 1979 and the first since Ian Woosnam in 1991, the 41-year old Dubliner couldn’t keep a three-putt off his card as he finished two shots clear of Bubba Watson on five under par at Port Royal Golf Course.

A late substitute for the injured Open champion Ernie Els, the three-time major chattered his way around as Masters winner Watson putted poorly for a 68, US Open champion Webb Simpson posted an uninspired 69 and Rory McIlroy’s stand-in, Keegan Bradley, paid for a sluggish start with a one over 72.

Bubba Watson and Padraig Harrington on number 9 during the first round of play at The Port Royal Golf Club for the 30th Grand Slam of Golf on October, 23, 2012 in Southampton, Bermuda. (Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)Had he not holed two good birdie putts from around eight feet on the 14th and 16th, Harrington admitted that he might have walked off the course a frustrated man. Instead he rolled in a four footer for par at the 18th with all the enthusiasm of a novice Dad tackling a particularly challenging nappy change.

Don’t let the banter fool you. There’s $600,000 up for grabs for the winner and Harrington, who lost this title in playoffs in 2007 and 2008, is not in Bermuda for laughs.

He turned down the chance to win even more money, not to mention crucial world ranking points, in the BMW Masters in Shanghai this week. He also needs the lift a victory would bring before he heads to Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai searching for his first European tour win for four years.    

The Irish star is finding life tough on the greens for the first time in his career. After the Masters he confessed that he was close to the heebie-jeebies for a while. He’s hitting the ball further and straighter than ever and finding more greens.

And while he will never become a Colin Montgomerie, his short game is not as sharp as it was in the past and he’s no longer an assassin on the greens. Add all that together and life can become frustrating.

Padraig Harrington hits a shot out of a bunker on 17 during the first round of play at The Port Royal Golf Club for the 30th Grand Slam of Golf on October, 23, 2012 in Southampton, Bermuda. (Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)That’s not to say that he won’t rediscover his midas touch. But one is tempted to conclude that the harder he tries to find it, the more elusive it will become.

Asked the key to scoring well at the Bermuda course, Harrington launched into a paean to good putting. It’s standard stuff but it also appears to be at the forefront of his mind.

“Well, every day we play, you’ve got to hole putts,” he said. “In professional golf, the standard is very high and the only way to differentiate from that is to hole putts.

“Yes, like all golf courses, the greens here, reading the greens, hitting good putts, it’s so important.  It’s very hard to make a lot of birdies unless your holing putts, unless you play great; you’re going to hole a lot of 10‑footers, so, yes putting is a major part of it, especially if you’re playing well.  It’s hard to putt well, and with the more greens you hit, you tend to be that little further away, and it is harder to be a good putter.

“So it puts even more emphasis on hitting lots of good putts and holing your fair share like I did on 14 and 16 today, which I think I would have been very frustrated with my round if I don’t hole those two putts.  

“They were both from eight feet, which is so by into means a given, so when you get one, it creates good momentum going forward.  If you want to do anything well, putt well; follow that with think well, and then probably follow that with drive well.”

Padraig Harrington hits a shot on number 9 during the first round of play at The Port Royal Golf Club for the 30th Grand Slam of Golf on October, 23, 2012 in Southampton, Bermuda. (Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America)Stopping Harrington winning today will be easier for Watson, Simpson and Bradley if they simply ignore his good-hearted chatter.

“You know what, every day I play, I always try to make an effort to enjoy the day, talk to my playing partners,” Harrington said. “Today it was better than ever. We were all very relaxed out there.

“Everybody was up for a chat. Some days you can play with a guy who maybe doesn’t want to talk back, so you can keep talking. Today, everybody was enjoying it, and you know, selfishly, I play better when the whole group enjoys it. If the guys have any sense, they shouldn’t talk to me tomorrow.”

Bogeys at the third (three-putts from 15 feet) and the 235 yard 16th, where he hadn’t got enough club to make the green and chipped weakly from the apron, were his only blemished

“I had a 15-footer at the third and kind of lost my focus a bit on the line and drove it through the line, and then hit a bad putt coming back, a terrible bogey,” Harrington said. “I wasn’t feeling great and then on No. 6 I hit it stone dead on my second shot. You need to be making the birdies at that stage.

“And then followed it up with a 7-iron to 15 feet for eagle at the next. Never bad to make a birdie. I wasn’t disappointed not hitting the eagle putt.

“Hit a lob-wedge stone dead at 10. I wasn’t hitting putts at this stage, so it was good to hit one where I couldn’t miss. Then I holed my two putts on 14 and 15. They were the bonus putts of the round. I holed about, two putts maybe, 15 to 18 feet sort of length.”

Bubba Watson hits a shot on number 9 during the first round of play at The Port Royal Golf Club for the 30th Grand Slam of Golf on October, 23, 2012 in Southampton, Bermuda. (Photo by Montana Pritchard/The PGA of AmericaHarrington was 2 under at the turn, level with Watson, but he pulled clear when Watson bogeyed 10 and Harrington tapped in for birdie following another impressive approach.

A semi-duffed chip shot at 16 aside, Harrington might have been looking at equalling the course record 65 set by Lucas Glover in 2009.

“You know, you could play the golf course more or less with the yardage short today because there wasn’t a huge amount of wind there,” said Harrington. “The ball, the conditions, the golf course, responded exactly how you would expect. So there wasn’t a lot of local knowledge today, but if we got a change of wind direction tomorrow, it’s not like it’s going to firm up overnight or anything.

“But if we got a change of wind direction, that would be very awkward for the likes of myself, Bubba and Webb. I think Keegan [Bradley] said he played in a directly opposite wind from last year, so I hope it doesn’t happen tomorrow.”

Bradley is six shots behind but he was in the same position with a round to go last year, went out in six under 30 on the second day and won the trophy.

“A little disappointing to come out and shoot that number, but good thing is we’ve got another day tomorrow,” Bradley said.

“You know, Padraig is playing very well. I’ve been six shots back before with less time, so I look forward to going out tomorrow and just making a million birdies and having a good time.

“Padraig played great today. If he plays the way he did, I have no chance, but I look forward to a nice challenge tomorrow.”

If Harrington was chatting to everyone, Watson spent much of the round muttering to himself about his putting.

After three-putting a few times and lipping out more than once, Bubba said: “I never really got anything going, but you know, solid, I would say, and I need to get off to probably a better start tomorrow to have a chance.”

Simpson bogeyed the last for his 69 but believe he can still win if he makes a good start to the final round.

“Pádraig made a few but I hit quite a few lips today,” he said. “I was 3‑under, it would have been nice to finish off with a par to be only two back but three back isn’t that far and hopefully we can play good tomorrow and hopefully make a few more birdies.”