Padraig Harrington could never be classified as a fair weather golfer but when was asked how his game barometer was reading after posting a career best, three under par 69 in the opening round of the Shell Houston Open, the Dubliner’s assessment could be interpreted as cloudy with a possibility of sunshine.
A card featuring five birdies and two bogeys on a day of gusting winds would have left most men in chipper mood just a week before the Masters. But not Harrington.
Struggling with a pull on the range, he was unhappy with the quality of his ball-striking and looked condemned to a humdrum day when he stood at “just” one-under par with five holes to play.
But while he ignited his round with a hat-trick of birdies from the 14th to jump into a share of second place, a bogey at the last left him inside the top 10 on three-under par with the likes of Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott, just two strokes behind the clubhouse leader Kevin Stadler (67) and hot-footing it to the driving range.
“I had some chances early on and three wedge shots on 10, 12 and 13 and played them in one over par,” said Harrington, who had never shot lower than 71 in the opening round in his four previous appearances at Redstone Golf Club. “So I am not feeling too good about my game. I holed a 36 footer on 14 and hit the flag on 15 with my pitch and hit it close on 16. So I went from nowhere to a good round.”
Harrington missed several birdie chances on the front nine but also holed his share of putts, notably a seven footer for birdie at the par five fourth, a seven footer for par at the short seventh and a five footer for birdie at the par-five eighth that helped him turn in two under 34.
He failed to save par from seven feet after a bunkering a 100 yard wedge shot at the 10th but holed one for par from a similar distance at the next and soon caught fire.
After draining a 36-foot bomb for a two at the 218-yard 14th, he hit the pin at the 15th and tapped in from five feet before rifling a 208-yard tee shot to six feet at the par three 16th to get to four under par.
With a stiff breeze gusting up to 28 mph, he made a splendid sand save at the 17th from 25 yards before bailing out on his tee shot at the 488-yard 18th, where the target off the tee is a sliver of fairway that snakes between a lake on the left and a large fairway bunker on the right.
With the wind whipping down off the right, it was no surprise that Harrington found the right hand trap from where he finished in the right greenside bunker. Splashing out 10 feet above the pin, he failed to save his par.
“I am pleased enough with the score but I didn’t hit it very well on the range before I went out,” said Harrington, who can only benefit from a tough work out on a man-sized Texas course. “I was starting my downswing a bit quick so I have got to go and hit a few shots now and make sure that I don’t panic. But there are no mysteries to solve.”
While Harrington would not “turn up his nose” at a win, Rory McIlroy looked as though he would be happy just to make the cut as he stood on three over par with just three holes to play.
Badly in need of a confidence boosting result, the world number 11 started on the back nine, missed an eight footer for birdie at his opening hole and promptly three-putted the 12th from 20 feet.
He got up and down from behind the par five 13th for birdie but bogeyed the 221-yard 14th after a bunkered tee shot to turn in one over 37 and continued to leak shots on the back nine, where he bogeyed the second and racked up a double bogey seven at the fourth, where he drove into a hazard on the right and had to take a penalty drop.
He birdied the fifth with a towering 144 yard approach to six feet but was still a couple of strokes outside the top 70 and ties who will make the cut tonight.
The tournament never got started for defending champion, Paul Casey, who withdrew with a injury to his left shoulder just minutes before he was due to tee off with Mickelson and and Scott.
“It’s completely separate from what I had before,” said Casey, who missed six months of last season with an intercostal muscle injury and plans not to hit balls for a couple of days. “I’m not overly worried but the left shoulder and the first rib on the left side aren’t moving correctly and the muscles around it have locked up. I’m not able to get the club into position I need to be able to swing it properly and hit the golf ball.”