By Brian Keogh
Padraig Harrington got set to smash a 25-year Irish Open hoodoo and insisted: "This is my Fifth Major."
As the field was blown away in winds gusting up to 50mph, Harrington kept his cool to fire a four under par 68 and take an one stroke lead over the unheralded trio of Sweden's Joakim Backstrom, Argentina's Andres Romero and England's Simon Wakefield.
A lot of Irish hopes have been dashed since John O'Leary and his afro dipped over the winning line at Portmarnock in 1982.
But Harrington, 35, knows he may never get a better chance to win a championship he cherishes above all others outside the Majors.
Harrington insisted: "It is my Open. It's my National Championship. It is No 5 behind the Majors.
"I believe it would be harder to win some other tournaments but this is No 5 and what I want to win."
The European No 1 will have to put the massive crowd support to the back of his mind if he is to overcome the emotional stress of leading the Irish Open.
But he added: "I want to win this very badly. There is no question about that. It would be a great achievement for me if I could go out over the next two days knowing I want to win it so badly and yet play and behave like it's a regular event and a regular normal day out.
"It does add pressure, no question about it. They are willing you on but you have to be disciplined and not worry about the 'oohhs' and the 'aahhs' if you do miss short putts. We do miss short putts. That happens in the game."
An early draw gave Harrington the best of the weather on a day when scores rocketed on a course that had been reduced from 7,453 to 7,131 yards.
And the Dubliner took advantage to card five birdies and just one bogey to set the clubhouse target of three under par.
When he finished he was tied for second behind overnight leader Peter Hanson of Sweden, who had yet to start.
But it wasn't long before he was alone at the top as big numbers mounted on the scoreboard and Hanson took 78 to fall five behind after a 78.
Starting on the back nine, Harrington hit three birdies in his first seven holes with the pick of them coming at the par three 16th, where he hit the pin with an eight-iron.
He beamed: "It would have been nice to win Audi car for the hole-in-one. It finished about three feet away."
He dropped his only shot at the 18th where he three-putted from 45 feet but rolled home birdie chances from 15 feet at the first and 35 feet at the par-three fourth to move to three under.
It could have been even better as chances slipped away from five feet at the seventh and just three feet at the ninth.
But Harrington was delighted to have played stress free golf.
He said: "I played really well and created a lot of chances. I didn't get myself into any bother all day and it's hard to believe I shot 68 and I'm thinking of what might have been.
"The course is set up very reasonably considering the conditions and on every hole I was thinking about trying to make birdie, rather than yesterday when it was trying to make par.
"I prefer a course like this, the wind doesn't bother me and I know I have an advantage in that sort of weather.
"You were worried about getting the ball up in the wind because it could go anywhere, but if you hit a good tee shot you at least had a decent club into the green.
"The course is actually very sheltered, there are few holes where you get the full brunt of the wind.
"If we were playing any other golf course we'd all be sitting in the clubhouse looking out at it. It's very playable in extreme weather."
Harrington might have had the best of the weather but his 68 was one of just two sub-70 rounds for the morning starters with Rafael Cabrera Bello carding a 69.
Volvo Masters champion Jeev Milka Singh crashed to an 82 while overnight joint leader Simon Dyson took ten shots more than his opening round with a birdieless 78.
But it was even tougher for the later starters with none of them managing to break 70 or finish under par for two rounds.
Harrington knows he cannot worry too much about his rivals with 24 players within five shots of the lead.
He said: "I'm not going to go out there thinking, 'I'm in the last group' or 'I'm in the Irish Open'.
"There's no point in adding extra pressure because it is the Irish Open. I am playing it down in my own head."
Drawn with Harrington for the third round, Stoke-born Wakefield said: "Of course, Padraig is going to have all the crowd support and that's understandable given his stature here in Ireland and also around the world.
"But I will take it all on board and try and do my part in getting the crowd quickly on board.
"The good thing about Irish and British crowds is that they are so knowledgeable and whilst they're be cheering Harrington on they're decent enough to appreciate the efforts of all players."