Harrington predicts six Ryder Cup rookies

By Brian Keogh

Padraig Harrington began his 2008 campaign with a roller-coaster level par 72 to trail leader Martin Kaymer by six shots after the first round of the Abu Dhabi Championship.

And the Dubliner hinted afterwards that the 23-year-old German, who claimed last year's Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award, could be one of a host of rookies on the European Ryder Cup team at Valhalla next September.

Harrington believes that European golf is on the brink of a major "changing of the guard" and predicted as many as six first-timers on Nick Faldo’s side in Kentucky.

"I just think there will be less established players on the team and less household names and there might be as many as six rookies on Nick's team," Harrington said after a round that featured four bogeys and four homeward birdies.

"When you consider the two guys leading on the World Ranking Points Table (Justin Rose and Daniel Chopra) are both rookies then they are likely to almost certainly make the team, and usually it's off the World Ranking Points Table from where the established players get to make the team.

"So it's really pushing two more established players out, two more experienced players. It's usually from the European Points List table where you get a couple of rookies come from, so you really are talking perhaps six rookies in the side.

"I certainly think there is a little bit of the changing of the guard on the Tour and in Ryder Cup terms I don't know if that is the best thing or not."

Kaymer is currently 21st in the European Points List and while he holds a slender one-stroke lead over 2006 Abu Dhabi champion Henrik Stenson, his haul of an eagle, five birdies and just one bogey showed that he will be a force to reckoned with in the first of three "desert swing" events.

Damien McGrane leads the Irish challenge as he carded a two under par 70 to lie four strokes off the lead in a share of eighth place.

On a day when a stiff breeze and deep rough took its toll on some of leading lights, Swede Robert Karlsson and Australian Adam Scott posted four under par 68s to share third place with England's Lee Westwood in a three-way tie for fifth after a fine 69.

Defending champion Paul Casey took 75 and Order of Merit leader Ross Fisher crashed to a 77 but a birdie at his final hole helped Harrington finish the day tied for 38th place on level par with fellow Dubliner Paul McGinley and a resurgent Darren Clarke.

Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Peter Lawrie all shot one over par 73s with Gary Murphy just outside the cut mark after a 74.

Two over par after three holes, Harrington fought back to one under par with three to play but made up for disappointing bogeys at the seventh and eighth with a closing birdie three at the ninth.

He said: "Obviously four bogeys is a few too many but it's very much early season stuff and there's no question about that.

"I actually played quite decent through those early holes. I was two over after four but it could have been two under.

"It was nice to make the birdies on the front nine and get it back to one-under par but very disappointing to slip up on seven and eight having got it back but it cheered me up making birdie up the last."

McGrane was happy with his opening 70, explaining: "All the players here this week are rusty, and I'm happy enough on two-under. Probably a couple better than I was hoping for going out."

Following successive top-five finishes in South Africa either side of Christmas, Clarke had to rely on his short game to shoot 72, explaining: "To be able to shoot level par when I am not playing my best is another sign that I am moving in the right direction. I would have hoped for better but I am pleased with level par."

Sporting a mane of wavy locks, teenage rookie McIlroy revealed that he resisted the temptation to drop into the barber's at the Emirates Palace hotel and might not get a haircut until he grabs his maiden European Tour win.

"I have a bet going with my coach that I will get it cut whenever I win but we'll see," McIlroy said after a a frustrating round of two bogeys and just one birdie.

Out in level par after following a bogey at the 10th with a birdie at the 17th, he dropped a shot on the third (his 12th) and parred his way home.

He added: "It was very frustrating and it was as bad on the back nine as it was good on the front nine. But once I get a few rounds under my belt I'll be fine because I feel I am playing well enough and it really just sharpness."