Thoroughbred Harrington leads by six in Irish PGA

Brian Keogh at Brittas Bay

Eamonn Darcy compared him to a likely-looking thoroughbred pracing around the parade ring before a classic race.

But as Padraig Harrington left The European Club yesterday evening with a commanding six-stroke lead in the sponsored Irish PGA Championship, he looked for all the world like a gleaming red Ferrari being pushed back into the pits for a final tune up before the big race.

To suggest that the Harrington is the white-hot favourite to convert his huge 54-hole lead into a fifth Irish Championship victory today would be like saying that Pat Ruddy's pristine links course is a tough test of golf. It goes without saying.

As a trail run for next week's Open Championship title defence, the success or failure of the Dubliner's warm up for Royal Birkdale can only be assessed tomorrow week. 

Yet in the light of his play yesterday, when he bogeyed the second and fourth holes on visibly quicker greens to see his three-stroke overnight lead shrink to just one shot, the Dubliner rallied to cover the remaining holes in three-under par and looked eminently pleased with his preparations for the season's third Major.

Not only did he bounce back to card a one-under par 70 for a level par 54-hole total of 213, he did it with the focus and steady concentration of a man on a mission.

"I made a slow enough start and I was a couple over so it was nice to comeback from that," said Harrington, who will take on 1995 Ryder Cup hero Philip Walton in today's final round. "I was trying hard to get it back under par which was the target for the day and I was close enough to that."

Walton had a poor day on the greens - driving the ball brilliantly for no reward. But despite carding 16 pars and two bogeys for a 73 and a six-over par total, the 46-year-old from Malahide has no plans to roll over without a fight.

"I'd be happy if I could start holing a few putts," said Walton, who will join Harington, Graeme McDowell and Damien McGrane at Royal Birkdale next week. "I played well today, solid, real good. I was two over after 10 holes and I shouldn't have been. I'll give him a run. He's not going to come here and get it easy."

Harrington has been around long enough to know that he can't take anything for granted. No doubt, he will remember his one-stroke victory over Walton in the 2004 Irish PGA title at St Margarets, which went right to the 72nd hole.

"It is not a foregone conclusion," Harrington said. "The fact is, Philip or anybody else could have a good day and I could have an average day. But I would hope that I can win from this position. 

"If it was a foregone conclusion they could give me the trophy now. Or I could wake up in the morning with a sore neck, you never know. Even golfing wise it is not too hard to go out there and shoot 75 in reasonable conditions. I was two over after four today. The pin positions were tougher and the greens were quite a bit quicker."

Waterville's David Higgins carded just the third sub-par round of the championship when he fired a two under par 69 to move into a share of third place with Darcy (73) and Robert Giles (75) on eight-over par. 

But the vast majority of the spectators who gathered at The European Club are there to see how Harrington is shaping up for The Open and they will have come away yesterday happy that Ireland's golfing superstar is close to his best.

After his early problems, the Dubliner turned his day around when he reduced the fearsome, par-four seventh to a hybrid, a seven-iron and a three foot putt, commenting: "I was happy to see the birdie on seven. It made my round a lot easier. There were a lot of tough holes to come and I was thinking, where am I going to make my birdies. That was a bonus."

He bogeyed the ninth to turn in two-over par but then eagled the par-five 13th by rifling a 207-yard five-iron to eight feet to move five stokes clear of the field. 

He used his driver just once all day, at the tough 16th, but followed that with a birdie from 15 feet at the 17th before two-putting the last for a facile par four.

"There wasn't too much wind but enough to make you think on every shot. So this is ideal preparation," said Harrington. "I am happy - not 100 percent happy at this very moment - but I am happy that I couldn't have done any more and at this moment and my preparation (for the Open) is on track. 

"I was struggling a bit to hold the ball up in left to right winds to and leaving the clubface open at the top of my backswing. I always like to have something to lean on and keep my mind occupied, so it is something to keep me occupied for the next number of days." 

As for his lack of practice with the driver, Harrington believes the focus required to stay out of trouble at The European Club more than compensates for hitting a few more fairway woods off the tee.

"There are a lot of holes out here where you have to have to be good with your strategy off the tee and then commit to it. It is a fine test in making you focus off the tees but it would be nice to hit more drivers," he said.

Harrington was paired with Clontarf's Eamonn Brady in yesterday's third round but the recently qualified PGA professional confessed that nerves got the better of him as he started with a double bogey six and followed that with four successive bogeys before settling down to card a 77 that leaves him ten shots off the pace.

"I was very, very nervous at the start. I need more exposure to that sort of thing," said Brady with admirable candor. "He has it all sorted out. He just does it. There's no effort. He knows how far he hits it. He knows how far it's going. He just goes out and does it."