Padraig Harrington crashed back to planet earth in the Transitions Championship on Friday when he followed his career best 61 with a one-over 73 that betrayed some worrying frailty on the greens.
Having taken just 22 putts in his course record opening round, holing putts totaling 175 feet in what his playing partners described as a putting “clinic”, he missed from 22 inches on his 15th hole yesterday for the first of successive, three-putt bogeys.
Three clear overnight, he finished the day tied for second with William McGirt (68), two strokes behind new leader Jason Dufner (66-66) on eight under par.
Yet while the Dubliner’s hopes of victory are still very much intact, 33 players now within six shots of the lead and he will need an excellent weekend on the greens if he is to win on the PGA Tour for the first time since 2008.
Not only that, he upset his mother.
“I would actually say, my mother cursed at me for missing the tap‑in on 6,” he said of the missed 22-inch par putt that saw him lose the outright lead for the first time all week. “She wouldn’t be so impressed with me not going through my routine on that.”
Harrington three-putted again at the seventh, where he hit a 39-foot birdie putt so hard that it bashed off the back of the hole and finished four and a half feet away instead of twice that distance
Either way, he missed the return and put his two over par second round down to being over-cautious in the wake of his phenomenal opening round.
“I’m happy with my game but when you shoot a good score, it’s hard to match the next day,” Harrington said. “When you’re leading the tournament, it’s hard not to be a little bit cautious and I think at times I was on the greens. I struggled to get the ball up to the hole a lot today.”
Harrington hit several unconvincing putts and confessed: “It would have been okay if I got to that clubhouse shooting 70 or so. But I’m glad it’s not Sunday. I know I have to putt a little bit better on Sunday. You’ve got to have a little bit more flow if you’re going to win tournaments. I didn’t do that much damage today.”
The last time Harrington mentioned the yips, he was talking about the current controversy about the belly putter and Bernhard Langer’s affliction on the greens.
The time before that he was talking about himself.
“From 2005 to the middle of this year, actually about March, I had the yips in the bunkers,” he said at the Portugal Masters last October.
If it took him six years to mentioned his bunker problems, it may be some time before we discover what’s ailing him over the short putts.
Harrington complained of not trusting his lines in the Honda Classic, where he was ranked last in the field in effectiveness from three to five feet. But his fear on the greens has been growing for several years now.
Perhaps it’s part and parcel of turning 40. Having once said he’d be burnt out by the time he hit his 40s, Harrington now says he’s got another five years of top level golf left in his system. The question is: how have his nerves fared?
Joking on Thursday about the fact that he no longer fires course records with the abandon of youth, he said: “When I was a young pro and naïve and innocent, I used to go out there and shoot more course records than now as a seasoned pro with a lot of fear and damage in my system.”
Harrington is a player who has lived by fear and used it to his advantage. Yet it is ironic that a player who is hitting the ball better than ever from tee to green, has now become so streaky with the blade.
In round two he had 33 putts, holing out for a total of 36 feet 2 inches. The longest putt he holed was a six footer for his lone birdie of the day at the par-five 11th, his second hole.
But after that it was all a bit of a struggle. After holing a four and a half footer for par at the 13th, he missed from 10 feet for par at the 18th to turn in level par for the day.
The field was closing the gap on his lead and when he missed successive birdie chances from 15 feet at the second and third and a seven footer for birdie at the fourth, he finished nervously.
He saved his par five with a great chip from deep rough at the fifth, where he hit a huge hook off the tee and then overshot the green following his lay up.
But those three-putts at the sixth and seventh told the story of what was a generally tentative display.
“I suppose I didn’t hit the ball close enough, either,” Harrington said. “I didn’t have a lot of 15‑footers where you’re not worried about pace, you’re not worried about missing them.
“You know, you’re just rolling them down there and that kind of frees up your stroke. I tended to either have short putts or long putts today and I was definitely tentative on the long putts, and you know, inevitably you’re a bit tentative on the short putts.
“It’s nice when you play good golf and you keep hitting in there to 15 feet and pace isn’t a big issue. I didn’t do that today.”
Before being hauled away for a random drug test, Harrington planned to work in his putting.
“I realize that after shooting 61, I could obviously keep playing well and go on and win the tournament by going away from everybody,” he said. “But the more likely thing is you’re going to hang in there and be around there come Sunday afternoon with nine holes to play; you’ll be there or thereabouts and it will probably come down to who plays the best back nine on Sunday…
“Today, you know, some things didn’t go well. Golf is a bit like that. There might have been three or four shots difference between the way I played in the two days. There wasn’t 12 shots difference. I hope that’s as bad as I ever play, because I’d be thrilled if that was.”
Harrington might well grab the tournament by the scruff of the neck again today.
But the real test will come on the greens on Sunday afternoon.