Graeme McDowell got a scary glimpse of the competitive animal inside Padraig Harrington before surviving a dramatic back nine comeback to beat him on the 18th and set up a second round showdown with Sweden’s Alex Noren in the weather-delayed WGC-Accenture Match Play.
The Ulsterman won two up in the end but not before some Houdini stuff from Harrington and a few of his own mistakes turned what looked like being a comfortable win into a back nine dogfight that went right to wire at Dove Mountain.
“It was always going to be tough playing Padraig,” said a relieved McDowell, who saw his three up lead after 10 holes disappear by the 14th.
“It’s always hard to play against colleagues, peers, friends, very hard to get that killer instinct going, especially someone like Padraig
“As a fellow Irish golfer, you don’t really want to be sending him home. But when it gets done, it’s either him or me, and thankfully I was able to get the job done in the end.”
Summing up the match, McDowell added: “He missed a few short ones on the front nine. I felt like I played quite solidly and was controlling the match through 10 holes. He makes a five from the bushes on 11, and I hit a terrible shot to 12. And instead of being four up, I was two up.
“You know, he birdies 13 to go back to one down and then I hit a terrible shot to 14, and all of a sudden he’s making one from 15 feet on 15. That’s the kind of player he is.
“When the chips are down, he’s going to produce the goods. Thankfully I was able to hang on to him and hit a few good shots coming in.”
A gutsy six footer for a half at the 15th gave McDowell the strength to play well enough over the closing holes to see off Harrington, who now looks likely to fall out of the world’s top 50 and fail to qualify for the WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami in a fortnight.
Having done all the hard work, the Dubliner bogeyed the par-three 16th to go one down and then, after holing a five footer at the 17th to take the match to the last, he made a mess of it.
After pushing his tee shot into the desert, he saw McDowell hit his second to 15 feet and went for the green from the scrub.
His approach came up 40 yards short in the desert short of the green and after advancing his third just 25 yards to the rough, he failed to chip in for par and conceded by picking up his ball, which had come up 12 feet short
It was the 41-year old’s fourth first round defeat in a row and his seventh in 13 appearances in an event where his best performance ended in a quarter-final loss to Tiger Woods at La Costa nine years ago.
Again it was his putter that cost him. The confidence that had flowered in the first few weeks of the year withered on the bumpy poa annua greens in Pebble Beach and Los Angeles and failed to bloom again in the desert air.
Resuming the weather abandoned first round over a four and a half footer on the first, Harrington knocked it in to take a one up lead after McDowell had missed from 25 feet for par.
But the putting demons that have haunted him for the past few years quickly took over. He missed three putts inside five feet, losing the second by missing from four feet before three-putting the fifth and sixth, to find himself two down and in trouble.
“It was the missed putts early on obviously,” Harrington said afterwards. “The second went against the head but the two three-putts on five and six, Graeme was putting nicely at that stage and I wasn’t doing myself any favours. It was a bit of a difficult run. I had no momentum and when you are not alone not holing them but three putting them, it’s difficult.”
The three-time major winner looked likely to win the par-five second when he chipped just inside four feet with McDowell short-sided on the right. But the Ulsterman hit a flop shot to 12 feet and rolled in the putt for birdie before the Dubliner dribbled his effort over the right edge of the hole.
Back to all square, the Dubliner got up and down from greenside sand at the par-three third for a half in par but after missing an slippery 11-footer for a win at the fourth, the three-time major winner three-putted the fifth from 40 feet and sixth from 35 feet, missing inside five feet both times for his par.
While he holed a three and a half footer at the seventh and chipped dead for a half in birdie fours at the eighth, Harrington drove into trouble right of the par-four 10th, took a penalty drop and eventually ran up a double bogey six to go three down.
Still, he never gave up.
In trouble off the tee again at the par-five 11th, where he hooked into the desert, the world number 50 chipped back into play and eventually scraped a half in par with a gutsy five foot putt.
“I am cruising along and he makes par from the junk on 11 which was a mini turning point and then I stand up on 12 and hit an awful tee shot short of the green,” McDowell said of the bogey four that cut his lead to two holes.
“On [the par-five] 13th we both hit fantastic tee shots and my second goes long left, which is the only place you can’t hit it. I had a really, really tough pitch and didn’t get it up and down and then on 14 I hit a bad shot [to lose to a birdie three]. I really had no complaints about the way I played but that is the kid of guy he is.”
Harrington had holed nothing all day but McDowell knew he had a match on his hands when his rival drilled in a 12 footer for birdie at the 15th.
McDowell had to follow him in from six feet just to stay all square and manage to get the ball in the hole.
“It’s very tough to sort of summon the belief and the focus, I suppose, because all of a sudden from being completely under control and loving what I was doing, all of a sudden I was reeling and he was gaining in energy on every hole,” McDowell said. “I followed him in on 15, which was nice, and that kind of got me buzzing and I made some nice swings coming in.”
A pushed tee shot by Harrington to the par-three 16th led to a bogey four that put McDowell one up. And when they halved the 17th in par, Harrington was left needing some dramatics at the 18th to force extra holes.
He couldn’t produce them.
McDowell was relieved to seal a second round clash with Noren, who made seven birdies in a 6 and 4 demolition of US Ryder Cup star Dustin Johnson.
McDowell said: “Alex is a tough competitor, but there’s a lot of tough competitors here, and I’m hoping for my sake he used all those birdies up today. All I can do is be patient and control my ball, and hopefully it’s good enough.”