Padraig Harrington insists he’s bang on schedule to peak for next week’s Masters after opening with a four under par 68 in the Shell Houston Open.
While he was sporting a four-day beard after leaving his razor at home, there were few signs of untidiness in the Dubliner’s game as fired five birdies and dropped just one shot - a three putt bogey at the 11th - to finish the day in a 12-man jogjam for ninth place with the likes of Lee Westwood.
Harrington was hoping to ease himself into Augusta with a comfortable, stress-free performance. But he is not averse to battling for the title and believes that contending in Texas will help him in Georgia.
“Absolutely I’m on schedule,” he said of his readiness for the Masters. “It puts a lot of pressure on me. If I can get into the contention and get the pressure on me this week, it will be good for next week.”
Apart from a couple of very wayward drives, the three-time major winner hit his irons well and took advantage of pristine greens to finish the day five strokes off the lead.
That was held by American Jimmy Walker, who had nine birdies in a course record-equalling 63 to lead by one from compatriot Josh Teater and Aussie Nick O’Hern, who needs to win this week to qualify for Augusta.
As Masters champion Phil Mickelson came back from a slow start to card a two under par 70, Harrington insisted he had no intention of waiting for a victory before shaving off his stubble.
“I’ll probably shave it when it gets to itching,” Harrington said. “That might be tonight. It’s certainly not staying on until I win a tournament. I’m not that naive.”
Harrington hit wedges to four feet at the first and third to get to two under par and then made his par five at the long fourth despite a poor tee shot than forced him to take a penalty drop.
He then holed a 47 footer for a two at the ninth to turn in three under 33 before dropping his only shot of the day at the 11th where he did well to hit the green after a hooked drive but three putted from 45 feet.
He got back to three under when he birdied the short par four 12th thanks to a 54-yard pitch to four feet and then made amends for a mediocre long bunker shot at the par-five 15th by holing a 15 footer for birdie to get to four under.
He missed a great 12 foot chance after following a 330-yard drive with a fine approach to the difficult 17th before getting up and down brilliantly from greenside sand for his par four at the last, holing an eight footer to finish the day on a positive note.
Considering how well he struck the ball, Harrington felt he could have gone a few shots lower had he attacked a little more.
“I think we gave the pin positions a little too much respect,” he said. “I short-sided myself a few times. I think maybe I need to be a little more aggressive. I’m on track, but I can do more. It’s within my control.”
Westwood showed flashes of brilliance in a 68 that featured seven birdies and three bogeys but Mickelson bogeyed the second and three-putted the seventh for a double bogey five to slip to three over before bouncing back with six birdies and a bogey in the next 10 holes
“The day was just beautiful. We didn’t have any wind, so there were a lot of birdie holes,” Mickelson said. “Even though I was 3-over after seven, there were still a lot of chances to get the round back and I was able to get to a couple under.
“The course is got to be the best manicured course I think we play on Tour outside of maybe Augusta. The superintendent here has done an amazing job.”
Mickelson confessed that he struggled to read the bermuda greens and was worried that he might have broken his driver after seeing hairline cracks appear.
“It actually looked like the driver that was made from a stronger titanium. It actually does that, kind of creates a little spider-like crack. It doesn’t affect the performance. I’ll be fine to use it.
“I just got a text from our R & D head that it’s going to be fine. It’s a stronger titanium. Sometimes it has that look. The shots I hit after were great. The ball flew very well. There wasn’t an issue, but it just scared me when I looked down and saw it.”
The left-hander practiced at Augusta National earlier this week and confessed that the visit got him excited about his Masters defence.
“Monday and Wednesday weren’t the best weather days. I got a lot of work done on Tuesday. It was dry and they rolled the greens,” he said. “That course, the thing about that for me is that yes, I’m going there to practice and prepare, but I get excited about the game of golf.
“I feel like a kid when I play Augusta. It gets me rejuvenated, energized, and just really look toward to practicing hard and working and playing golf. There’s something very spiritual about Augusta for me.”