Padraig Harrington played sublimely for 17 holes before falling victim to the thing he feared most in his first start of the season - mental error.
The Dubliner, desperate to climb into the world’s top 64 from a 12-year low of 89th so he can qualify for next month’s WGC-Accenture Match Play, was lying joint second in the Volvo Golf Champions when he racked up a double bogey seven at the 18th. (Scores)
All things considered, his four under par 69 on The Links at Fancourt was a laudable effort for a man who is under pressure to come out firing on all cylinders if he is to take his place in the field in Tucson and boost his chances of making the Ryder Cup team for the seventh time.
He’d hit 10 of 13 fairways and missed just two greens all day as he came to the 549-yard 18th looking for a birdie that would have left him just two strokes behind leader Nicholas Colsaerts, who shot a sensational nine under par 64.
Harrington warned before the start that “every hole on the course has potential disaster” and that “the key is to remain calm and try and be in contention come Sunday afternoon.”
He did that superbly all day until he came to the last and faced with a testing drive, he carved it into an unplayable lie in the heavy rough on the right, took a penalty drop and left himself a 120-yard wedge for his fourth.
He was unlucky to finish 35 feet beyond the hole but then erred badly, racing his bogey effort six feet past before feebly dribbling the return wide of the target.
“Such is life,” Harrington said. “It was a very comfortable six under for 17 holes, but it’s a nasty tee shot and that was a mental error.”
It was poor putt by Harrington’s standards but one that showed signs of tension, as he explained to Karl MacGinty in the Irish Independent yesterday.
“When you have a good start to the year and are riding high with confidence, your putts go in a lot easier,” Harrington said when referring to the stress his putting suffered last season. “In contrast, when you’re trying too hard, everything gets that little bit tougher to do. They seem to count for a lot more.”
After a birdie two at the second, Harrington holed from four feet for birdie after finding sand in two at the back to the par-five fourth.
He turned in 34, three shots better than playing partner Ernie Els and then hit a purple patch at the start of the homeward journey with birdies at the 10th, par-three 11th and par-five 13th followed by another birdie four at the 16th.
His round brought back memories of the 65 he shot to open his season in Abu Dhabi last year - a round that was eventuall struck from the books as he was disqualified for signing for an incorrect score following a ball-marking error visible only with the benefit of slo-mo replays.
Despute three-putting the last, he had just 28 putts in all and will be looking foward to the next three rounds with confidence, despite his final hole blip.
The same could not be said for a rusty Darren Clarke, who was sporting contact lenses and wraparound shades for the first time following some eye tests over the winter break.
Three bogeys and two birdies, including one at the last, added up to a one over 74 for the Open champion as he finished the day tied 24th in the 35-man field.
A total of 32 putts told the story of Clarke’s day as he struck the ball almost as well as Harrington from tee to green and celebrated ironically when a birdie putt finally fell into the hole at the 14th.
Michael Hoey had a day to forget in his first outing the year as he missed too many greens and scrambled poorly for a five over 78 that left him second last in the field.
His putter failed to match the sweltering temperatures and 33 putts was always going to make it difficult to hold a score together on a course that will only become more difficult as the week wears on.
As Harrington said in his preview of the event on his weblog: “I think that the course is very good but a tough test and one where you need to keep your wits about you.”
As for Colsaerts, the big hitting Belgian grabbed a four stroke lead thanks to a course-record 64 that featured nine birdies in the last 11 holes.
He said: “This is probably the best round I’ve ever had - it’s quite a serious test of golf.”
After Harrington’s late mistake, England’s Tom Lewis and South Africans Thomas Aiken and Branden Grace, who qualified by winning the Joburg Open on Sunday, share second spot after five under 68’s.