Padraig Harrington made a bright start thanks to his mental strength and short game sharpness in the Valero Texas Open. Padraig Harrington drew on a lifetime’s experience playing tough courses in even tougher weather by showing his mental strength and ability to grind out a score in the Valero Texas Open in chilly San Antonio.
As Rory McIlroy was left to rue so unforced errors in a level par 72 and Shane Lowry fired a late evening 70 to finish just three shots off behind leaders Matt Bettencourt and Peter Tomasulo on two under, Harrington went back to his roots on a cold, blustery morning at TPC San Antonio, taking just 23-putts in a four under 68 that left him just a shot off the pace.
It was a pleasant return to form in the short game department for the Dubliner, whose lack of course knowledge proved to be no impediment to good scoring in his final warm up event before next week’s Masters Tournament.
Despite a three-putt bogey six at the last, where he aggressively ran his 30-foot, downhill birdie putt four feet past the hole and missed the return, the 41-year old was content with an opening effort that left him tied for second place with Americans Billy Horschel and Bryce Molder.
“None of my misses were in bad places and if they were in bad places I got an okay lie,” said Harrington, who took two days to see all 18 holes as he spent Monday searching for a new driver. “I made the most of it and scored every so well for 17 holes. The 18th leaves a bit of a sour taste, I was a bit overconfident, but there you go.”
No-one likes the sound of moaning professionals more than Harrington, who finds that tough conditions bring out the best in him.
“I am patient and I am prepared to choose the right shot,” he said. “I am quite an aggressive player but on a tough course I know I can get it up and down and I think what happens when you have a tough golf course is the pins aren’t quite as tricky.
“It is a big golf course but your misses give you some opportunity to get it up and down whereas on a softer golf course, if you miss, usually it is very, very tight. I worked it around the golf course well. I was brought up playing around a lot of tough golf courses and that’s the way I play.”
“I am not walking away from this round thinking, wow, I hit a number of pure golf shots. It was more mental fortitude than ball striking.
“I like going to tough golf courses because it gives the tournament director an opportunity to set the golf course up easier or fairer or to soften it up a bit. I find it hard when we go to a golf course that’s easy and they have to toughen up the pin positions.
“That’s why I was able to get up and down today. It’s a big golf course and pins were five and six yards from the edges of greens rather than three yards from the edge. There is always an opportunity to get up and down when you know you have a little bit of room.”
Getting up and down consistently has been a problem for Harrington as he has struggled with either his wedges, his putting, or both, several times already this season.
Rory McIlroy was frustrated by his “silly mistakes” in Texas.After holing a 13 footer for a chip and putt birdie at the par-five second, he got up and down from greenside sand at the third and fourth, holing six footers each time.
He had to scramble to save par at the short seventh and get up and down from more sand at the par-five eighth before being forced to scramble for par again at the ninth as he went out in one under 35.
He then birdied the 10th, hitting 154-yard approach to seven feet, before picking up another shot at the 11th with a wedge to eight feet before being forced to get up and down for par at the next two holes.
In greenside rough at the par-five 14th in two, he inevitably got up and down for birdie to get to four under for the day before getting up and down yet again at the 15th, this time courtesy of a 14 foot putt.
After a two-putt par three at the 200-yard 16th, he birdied the short, par-four 17th thanks to a 328 yard drive and another brilliant chip.
But after making his 10th one-putt of the day there, he got over aggressive with his birdie chance down a tier at the 18th and paid the price by missing his only short putt of the day.
“Greg Norman designs golf courses to test professional golfers not to please professional golfers but it tends to suit my game for sure,” Harrington said of a track that is generally one of the toughest on the PGA Tour.
“I have a pretty decent record on my first outings at golf courses, especially tough golf courses, because I don’t have expectations. I am not under pressure to go out there and shoot eight under par. Going out there this morning, especially early on, it was a battle for survival. Last week back in Ireland there was snow and I didn’t feel as cold.
“It was tough early on. In some ways it is a nice thing because you keep it at level par and then you are within your confort zone. All of sudden you make a couple of birdies and you are three or four under and pushing on.
“There certainly wasn’t a feeling on the first tee that you have to go low to stay in this tournament. It was a feeling of let’s just hang in there and stay in this tournament and sometimes that let’s you play more within yourself.”
Asked if he was particularly comfortable at hitting the three-quarter shot in the wind, the two-time Open champion said: “The strenth of my game is not particularly the (knockdown, three-quarter) shots but the thinking that goes with it.
“Missing in the right place and being prepared to hit a bad shot and get on with it. On a tough day like today there is a lot of things going on with that wind. It is getting up, it is coming across, it is changing direction at times, it’s gusting.
“There is a lot of distraction and one of my strengths is dealing with that. I do like to see a tough course on a tough day. History would say, that’s when I’m at my strongest and certainly I enjoy that challenge.”
As for McIlroy, the world No 2 has not broken par in the first round of any tournament this year and even bogeyed two par-fives.
Starting at the 10th alongside Matt Kuchar and Jordan Spieth, the 23-year old County Down man played his first five holes in model fashion, hitting every fairway and every green.
His first birdie of the day arrived at the par-five 14th, where he missed an 18 footer for eagle, and while he missed his first fairway of the day at the next, he still hit the green in regulation.
A 328-yard drive to the edge of the driveable, 348 yard 17th set up another easy birdie that gave him an early share of the lead on two under par.
But then bogeyed three holes in a row, finding water with his third to the 18th before failing to get up and down at the first and second to slip to one over.
He got back to level thanks to a 54 yard pitch to six feet at the fifth and then birdied the sixth with a wedge to six feet before failing to get up and down for par at the ninth.
“I started off well - got it to two-under - then I threw in those silly mistakes I was talking about trying to eliminate,” said McIlroy, who was tied for 45th. “Made two bogeys on the par-fives and made a bogey with a wedge in my hands.
“It’s hard to make birdies out there, especially when the conditions are like they are today. I need to limit those mistakes, definitely more mental mistakes than physical. Just stop doing them. I don’t know; it’s hard to explain. It comes with play. That‘s why I‘m here this week.”
Later starter Shane Lowry three-putted the par-three 16th, his seventh, but used his sensational short game to birdie the 17th and 18th and then eagled the par-five second thanks to a spectacular 271-yard three-wood to six feet.
That left him within two shots of the lead on three under but he bogeyed the par-three third, taking three to get down from greenside rough just 30 feet from the pin.