From Brian Keogh in Los Angeles
It was deja vu all over again for Padraig Harrington as he mixed early season cobwebs with strokes of brilliance to open with a two under par 69 in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera.
The Dubliner is accustomed to struggling with his game early in the year. So he was quietly pleased to finish just four strokes behind clubhouse leader KJ Choi, who signed for a bogey-free, six under par 65 on a crisp Californian winter morning.
Out in level over par after mixing bogeys at the second and ninth with birdies at the third and sixth, the Open champion found his scoring game as the sun peeped through on the back nine.
Birdies at the 12th, where he drained a 20 footer, and at the short 14th, where he holed out from the fringe from 15 feet, put him up amongst the leaders.
Another birdie at the par five 17th, where he rifled wedge to eight feet and drained the putt, left him tied for fourth place on three under par
But while was slightly disappointed to bogey the 475 yard 18th after running just through the back of the green with a magnificent hybrid approach, his 69 looked remarkably healthy as the wind freshened for the afternoon starters.
“I am delighted to shoot 69 because I got a few putts in the hole today,” said Harrington, who is still struggling with a cold. “Okay, I bogeyed the last after hitting probably my two best shots of the day but thankfully I made a few early on and it is not the end of the world.
“I just need more rounds of golf, it is as simple as that. A 69 is a good start to the week and it means I can build on it. I have two and a half rounds to get myself in position with nine holes to go.
“We certainly got the advantage today with the weather. Starting on the first made it easier because when the wind did come up it was mostly downwind and I wouldn't complain about the luck of the draw.
“I am trying to build myself to where I want to be as quickly as possible. I am fighting well and most of the time I am scoring well. I need to play two tournament to feel good about my game and six events to get me good. I have seven events before Augusta again this year.”
Harrington complained that he was too tentative for most of the day but recalled wise words from his late father, Paddy, on winter form.
“As my Dad always said, you can't play well all year so don't play well in the winter,” he said with a huge grin.”
Then he added: “The only hole I wasn't tentative on was 18 and I made bogey. I struggled a little bit and wasn't trusting things and my focus wasn't 100 percent.
“It went as one would expect, even though you are always optimistic. When I look back it is exactly what I expected.
“I have just got to trust it a bit more and have more faith. That takes a few weeks of competitive play. The more tournament rounds I have under my belt, the better.”
Kevin Na hit a five under par 66 to trail Choi by a stroke with Ryder Cup players Chad Campbell and Vaughn Taylor on 67.
Further down the leaderboard the big names were gathering with US Open champion Angel Cabrera, world No 2 Phil Mickelson and England's Luke Donald carding fine 68s, despite dropping shots over their closing holes.
“I was pleased with three under,” said Mickelson. “I know there were some lower scores out there but it was a good start.”
Big John Daly, who controversially withdrew after three rounds of the Bob Hope Classic and missed the cut in his other two starts of the year, opened up with two under par 69 that featured six birdies, two bogeys and a double bogey at the sixth.
“It nice to finally get off to a decent start,” Daly said, revealing that he has been struggling with flu.
Asked how he’d be celebrating St Valentine’s Day “with a nice glass of water and sleep”, he grinned and replied: “Exactly.”