Brian Keogh in Tucson
Phil Mickelson put his finger on just why Padraig Harrington can have high hopes of making a run for his first World Golf Championship title in Tucson this week.
It’s not that Harrington has been burning the midnight oil with mental coach Dr Bob Rotella, his constant shadow in scorching heat on the driving range at Dove Mountain’s Ritz-Carlton Golf Club. It’s not even the assertion by the Open and US PGA champion that his form has picked up since he missed the cut at Pebble Beach and Rivera over the past two weeks.
It’s all about greens that look more like a loop the loop fairground attraction than surfaces you would normally associate with a top tournament venue.
“From what I can tell around the greens, it is very severe and will require some interesting shots, bump-and-runs, flops, spinning shots,” Mickelson said. “If short game is a big factor, which I believe it will be, I believe that that's going to play into my strengths.”
And that can only be good for Harrington, despite his struggles on and around the greens over the past few weeks.
The 37-year-old Dubliner will face Arizona’s Pat Perez in today’s first round and while he expects a tough match from the recent winner of the Bob Hope Classic, he has prepared well for a week where the champion must play the course seven times.
While Perez only arrived at Dove Mountain yesterday, Harrington played 18 holes on Sunday and nine holes with Boo Weekley on Monday before heading out for another nine holes yesterday morning in temperatures that reached an all-time February high of 33C (91F) earlier in the week.
“It's just one of those golf courses that because of the undulations in the greens, you'll always put doubt in your mind in the approach shots because you just can't hit it middle of the green every time,” Harrington said. “Middle of the green is sometimes worse than missing the green.
“It's one of those courses you're just going to have to put up with and keep firing at the flags, which is good for match play. It is actually a match play golf course.”
With the Masters just six weeks away, many have been asking Harrington about his lack of form as he prepares to chase the third leg of the “Paddy Slam” at Augusta in April. But the world No 4 insists that there is no need to push any panic buttons just yet.
“I've been working with Bob Rotella. And even though I knew what Bob is going to say to me, when he's there I do it better. There has been a distinct step up there,” he said. “Everyone is asking about the Masters but it is still a bit a way. I have had a slow start to the year and I haven’t showed much form but I feel good about things going forward.
“I think my form has picked up and I'm very happy. I reckon I'm two weeks behind where I should be, but I'm very happy with where I am and where I'm going.”
Still, he’s not building up his hopes in an unpredictable event where a player can shoot the lights and still go home after the first round.
Fully aware that American Pat Perez will be a tough opponent today, Harrington added: “Match play is a difficult event. You can go out there and play great and lose, and you can go out there and play average and win.
“You can never judge your form based on a week like this. If it was a stroke play event, I'd probably be a lot more comfortable, because as I suppose I'm looking to show some form, and it would be easier to do that in a stroke play event because I know I have 72 holes to do it.
“It's a long week to sustain it, as well. It is difficult to show form or to use to judge form anyway, for a player to know how he's playing.”
Rory McIlroy has set his sights on a third round clash with Tiger Woods but faces a tough match against Louis Oosthuizen, who has two runner up finishes and three top tens from five starts this year.
McIlroy said: “Whatever happens, happens. We'll have to see how it goes. But, yeah, obviously it would be a dream come true for me to be able to meet Tiger.
"And just to play with him or play against him, it would be great to do. But I have to focus on my first match and that's all I'm thinking about at the minute.”
Graeme McDowell will be the first Irishman in action against 2007 Masters champion Zach Johnson.