Brian Keogh in Los Angeles
He didn’t quite repeat the fireworks of last year’s 63 but Padraig Harrington was quietly pleased to brush away some of the winter cobwebs with an opening two-under par 69 in the Northern Trust Open at Riviera.
After a troubled front nine of two birdies and two bogeys, the Open champion put on his scoring hat on the back nine to get to three under with just the 18th to play but was somewhat dismayed to finish with a bogey after what he described as his “two best shots of the day.”
Still, the early season events are all about getting ready for April’s Masters and Harrington finished the day just four shots behind clubhouse leader KJ Choi, who carded an immaculate, six under par 65 with Phil Mickelson and Luke Donald just one better than him after 68s.
“I am happy to break 70 and the round had its bright spots,” Harrington said as the wind freshened for the afternoon starters. “But I was very tentative all day and that was a shame.
“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. But as my Dad always said, you can't play well all year so don't play well in the winter.
“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.
“I am delighted to shoot 69 because I got a few putts in the hole today. 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.”
A chill wind blew across Riviera when Harrington started his round alongside fellow Open champion Todd Hamilton and the compact left-hander Eric Axley at 7.37 am.
Early starter Peter Lonard wore gloves as he descended from the first tee, which towers above the 503-yard opening hole and
Harrington took a while to warm to his task on a cloudy, winter’s morning.
Needing only a mid-iron to get home in two at the first, he came up short in a bunker, left his sand save in the semi-rough short of the green and chipped and putted for a laborious par five.
The 463-yard second is one of the tougher holes on the course and Harrington made life hard by pushing his three-wood tee shot into the rough and then clipping trees with his rescue wood approach.
Bunkered right of the green, he played a spectacular 40-yard recovery to six feet but pushed his par-saving putt alarmingly.
A birdie at the third, where he holed from nearly 15 feet from the back fringe get him motoring again but scoring was already good with John Daly and Luke Donald already in red figures.
A tricky, chip and putt par at the 236-yard fourth kept his momentum going and he was soon up amongst the leaders courtesy of a lightning fast 14 footer at the 199-yard sixth.
The early season rust that was so evident at Pebble Beach last week was again apparent yesterday. But Harrington’s immaculate short game saved him at the eighth, where he pulled his approach onto a hillock left of the green but saved par from eight feet.
He couldn’t repeat the trick at the 458 yard ninth,which was playing into the teeth of the cold morning breeze. Short and right in two, his chipped pulled up 12 feet shot and he left the putt in the jaws to turn in level par.
The driveable 10th and par-five 11th are good birdie chances but Harrington missed from eight feet at the former and then carved his three wood approach to the latter behind a towering eucalyptus tree and could only make par.
The sun finally broke through at the 12th and Harrington warmed to his task, draining a 20 footer across the green for birdie before holing from just off the green at the par three 14th to get to two under par.
A wedge to eight feet at the par-five 17th set up his fifth birdie of the day, boosting him to tied for fourth at that stage before that unfortunate bogey at the last.
After a perfect drive, he hit his hybrid club 216 yards straight at the pin but ran through the back of the firm green and left himself a lightning fast pitch that ran 20 feet past the hole.