Even multiple major champions need a shot of confidence from time to time and Padraig Harrington is no exception.
On the ropes this season and struggling to earn his place in next month’s Dubai World Championship, the world No 83 needs a win as badly as beleaguered former world No 1 Tiger Woods.
What better for his spirits than an opening, seven under par 64 in his defence of the weather-delayed Iskandar Johor Open in Malaysia, leaving him just one stroke behind clubhouse leader Joost Luiten of the Netherlands when play was suspended for the day.
Starting on the back nine at Horizon Hills, Harrington pointed to the chip-in eagle at the 13th (his fourth hole) as the key to a round that matched the opening 64 he shot en route to victory last year (par has been reduced to 71 this week because of the sodden fairways with the fourth hole changed from a par-four to a par-three).
However, he also pointed to the fact that he was boosted by holing a 15-footer for par at the first, his 10th, to avoid three-putting for the third time in a row.
“It’s always nice when you come back to defend a title to put in a good showing,” Harrington said. “It’s great to be up near the top of the leaderboard, even though it’s early days, and it’s even nicer to be playing well. So it’s a case of so far, so good.”
Buoyed by his eagle three, Harrington birdied the 15th and 16th but three putted the par-three 17th for bogey and the par-five 18th for par before holing that confidence boosting par-saver at the first.
The 40 year old Dubliner could easily have lost all his momentum had he missed that putt but instead he finished brilliantly, coming home in 31 thanks to birdies at the par-five second and sixth holes, a two at the improvised fourth and fine three at the ninth.
Reflecting on his day and the eagle three at the 13th, he said: “I hit a decent drive but then pushed my second shot right with my five wood. I had about 40 feet to the pin, and managed to chip it in, which gave my round the kick-start I needed. I’d given myself a few chances early on, but didn’t hole the putts.
“So in the back of your mind you start to think that it might be one of those rounds which gets away from you, even though I’d struck the ball quite nicely. But then when I holed that chip, I started thinking that it might go my way after all, and that’s how it worked out in the end.
“I birdied 15 and 16, but then three-putted 17 and 18, which was disappointing. On the first hole I left my birdie putt 15 feet short, so I had to hole a long one to make sure I didn’t have three three-putts in a row. So that was pretty big. Once I holed that, I felt much better about life and played well coming home.”
Harrington feared that the sodden course would prove a far tougher test than last year, when he won with a 20 under par total. But despite the soft conditions, he was pleasantly surprised that others found scoring far tougher.
He said: “I left a few shots out there, but I’m still very happy with the score. I’m a bit surprised the scoring in general isn’t a little lower than it is. In our group, we must’ve made at least 25 birdies between us, and in some ways we fed off each other.
“A lot of times we made similar sorts of birdies on the same holes, which definitely helps you to keep your own momentum going.”
Harrington was tied for second in the clubhouse with Gregory Bourdy and Marcus Fraser when an electrical storm forced play to be suspended, leaving half the field to complete their first rounds early on Friday morning.
He warned before the event started that getting off to a fast start might prove crucial should the weather force organisers to reduce it to 54-holes, or even fewer.
“We’re all aware that this could well be another 54 hole tournament,” he said, referring to last week’s 54-hole Singapore Open. “So you need to get off to a fast start, because there’s obviously less time to make up any ground.”
Just three of the seven-strong Irish contingent managed to finish with Michael Hoey carding a two under 69 and Paul McGinley a nightmare 81 in what will be his final event of the season before knee surgery.
Struggling to keep his card, Gareth Maybin was three under par through 10 holes with Cork’s Niall Turner two under after 12, Peter Lawrie level after 10 and Damien McGrane one over with eight to go.