As the golfing world licks its lips at the prospect of a genuine shootout between world No 1 Tiger Woods and heir apparent Rory McIlroy, Pádraig Harrington rose phoenix like from the ashes of last week’s Quail Hollow burnout to hole 102 feet of putts in an opening 68 in The Players at TPC Sawgrass.
The Stadium Course has not been a happy hunting ground for Harrington since it was regrassed and the event moved from March to May - T52, cut, T49, cut, cut, cut.
But after finishing joint last in last week’s Wells Fargo Championship in his first event with a belly putter, the 41-year old Dubliner showed what pal and Sky pundit Paul McGinley described enthusiastically as “bouncebackabilty” to fire an eagle, five birdies, one bogey and a double bogey in a four under 68 that left him five off the pace in a share of 10th. Leaderboard
“All credit to him,” the European Ryder Cup skipper said after watching Harrington defy windier afternoon conditions. “He played poorly last week for him.”
It was a demonstration of sheer willpower by the three-time major winner, who looked shattered at the finish as he spoke to Sky Sport’s Sarah Stirk.
“I just holed lots of putts, so that was pleasing,” said Harrington, who missed just two fairways (marginally) and had just 25 putts including 11 one-putt greens.
“I hit plenty of fairways and holed lots of putts which is pretty decent combination around this course.”
Harrington looked distinctly uncomfortable when asked by Stirk to clarify for viewers the reasons why he decided to try the belly putter.
If the “heebeegeebies” [his euphemism for the unmentionable yips] were the cause, he certainly wasn’t going to go there.
“Well I had it adjusted, so it sat better,” he said of the vast improvement in his performance on the greens compared to the disaster on the poor putting surfaces at Quail Hollow. “If it went like today every day it would be fine. I’m getting there.”
Asked why he made the switch in the first place and if he intended to stick with the anchored club, he said: “Well, I’ll only stick with it if I am holing putts.
“I’ve been working on my putting, haven’t been putting well, and mechanically I have been working away on it and I had my stroke, had it analysed, and I was kind of bored so I picked up a belly putter and tried that.
“And I was surprised, as much as I don’t like the feel of the belly putter, that the stroke was actually better. To me it’s easier to have a good putting stroke so, okay, I don’t have the feel so it is just a question of using it and practicing with it and getting to trust it, just like I have with my own putter for a long period of time, which should mean an improvement.”
It looked like being another one of “those” days for the struggling world No 58 when he followed a glorious eagle three at the par-five second, where he hit a prototype (and adjustable) 21 degree Wilson hybrid to 19 feet and holed the putt, with a double bogey five at the next.
He pulled his tee shot into a hazard there but birdied the next from four feet, parred the next three holes in regulation and then save par from nine feet at the long par-three eighth off a poor tee shot and birdied the ninth thanks to a pitch to four feet.
“I obviously started very nicely, eagling the second, and thought things were good. I hit a bad shot on the next hole. The wind switched. I thought it was down off the left as I was fearing losing it right and then I pulled it and it went left on the wind.
“The shot was certainly a bogey shot but a double bogey was a little bit painful. Thankfully I hit it basically stone dead at the next hole which got me back on the birdie track. It’s important on a windy day to be under par.
“If you are one or two over par you are wondering where you are going to get your birdies but when you are one or two under you feel like you have something in the bank and generally it leads to three or four under.”
Suddenly one under par for his round and feeling more positive about his game having hit eight fairways and six greens on the front nine, he played the back nine in three under par.
While he drove the ball well coming home, missing only the 10th fairway but a few feet, he still missed four more greens but successfully scrambled for par each time.
His putting was undoubtedly key as he holed a four footer for par at the 10th, an 11-footer for birdie at the 11th and a 13 footer for par at the 13th to keep his momentum going.
Back to back birdies at the 14th (16 feet) and 15th (12 feet) put a whole new complexion on the round.
While he failed to birdie the 16th after a pulled second left him a tricky pitch just to find the green, he barely cleared the water at the 17th and caught the rough around the front bunker before chipping to seven feet and holing that too.
Wide of the 18th green with his second off another good drive, he chose the putter from off the green and rolled his third up to just three feet and tapped that home for a round that will have made him feel better about himself.
Asked if maturity made it was easier to be patient on a tricky day, Harrington grinned and said: “That’s a very polite way of saying you are getting old.
“I don’t necessarily see very many guys personalities changing out here. If you have got patience when you are younger you will have patience when you are older. Guys tend to stay who they are.”
As for McIlroy and Woods, the Holywood player hit a flawless 66 in the still morning conditions before Woods played a controlled round to get to six under through 17 holes before dropping a shot at the last for a 67.
McIlroy was the happiest of the three, not just for his score but for the way he controlled his golf ball.
Harrington won this particular battle but knows he will involved in trench warfare for the foreseeable future. As long as the putts are dropping, the belly putter will stay.
“It was 25 putts but there were some good putts in it too. The numbers aren’t always the important thing. It is holing the right putt at the right time. I putted well with it today; holed a few shortish ones early on that were important and that gives you a little more confidence when you are standing over a 20 footer and not necessarily worried about the three footer coming back.”
As for the adjustments he made to the belly putter itself, he explained: “Yeah, it didn’t sit perfectly last week. I knew that going in and I stuck to it. I should have changed. My old putter, the grip is a fraction open on it and this putter was built square and it was too square for me.”
That opens a whole new vista for the Dubliner, who donned his spectacles at the finish having opted for his traditional contact lenses for the round. He’ll be hoping he sees another 100 feet of putts drop on Friday.
Here’s Pádraig Harrington talking to Golf Monthly about the belly putter back in January.