McIlroy rolling again but wheels come off for Harrington and Clarke

As Rory McIlroy continued to make golf look as easy as a victory lap, Pádraig Harrington and Darren Clarke huffed and puffed around Quail Hollow only to trip cruelly over their shoelaces and fall flat on their faces within inches of the finishing line.

Back in action after the "disappointment" of his best ever finish in the Masters (and one of his worst ever putting displays), McIlroy had just 28 putts in a three under 69 that left him tied seventh, three shots behind Angel Cabrera after the opening round of the Wells Fargo Championship.

After single-putting eight times, the world No 11 said that was pleased him most about his performance on the new bermuda greens in Charlotte was that he holed "the ones that I missed at Augusta."

He was referring to those putts inside eight feet that failed to drop in the Masters, where he calculated that he missed 15 putts from that distance, "not counting the ones I missed from inside 12-15 feet," as he came home eight shots behind Bubba Watson in a career best eighth place.

Clarke, meanwhile, biridied his 17th hole to be just one over playing the ninth where he hooked his tee shot into trees and staggered away pencilling in a triple bogey seven for a four over 76 that leaves him facing a daunting battle to make the cut.

As for Harrington, the Dubliner saw every inch of Quail Hollow's rough but had one of his better days on the greens to go into the famous Green Mile finishing stretch tied for eighth place with the likes of McIlroy on three under par.

The golfing gods appeared to smile on him at the 16th where he drove into the trees on the right but, according to the PGA Tour's Shot Tracker, got a free drop and then salvaged a brilliant par with a chip and putt. 

Could this be the round that would kick start a Harrington revival? Apparently not as it appears the gods were merely tormenting the world No 196.

At the 216 yard 17th, he missed the green 12 yards right of the pin, sent his recovery chip scuttling 30 yards to the back fringe and unofficially "three putted" from 54 feet for a double bogey five.

Having holed out well all day — he also knocked in two 18 footers and the 40 footer for birdie — the pained expression on Harrington's face when he came up six feet short with his approach putt on the 17th and then missed for bogey said it all about his recent struggles.

Nothing comes easy to the man who is riding his bike uphill and at the last he duly shoved his drive into the right rough, played a good recovery to the apron short of the green but left his 40 yard pitch 25 feet short and dropped another shot

It was a painful end to a truly battling round and a 72 was in some respects something of a miracle considering he managed to hit just two of 14 fairways.

Knowing Harrington, he will wring every positive out of what was encouraging day before that unfortunate finish relegated him to tied 44th.

One over after a bogey at the second, he holed from 17 feet at the fifth to get back to level before following another birdie from nine feet at the eighth with a bogey off a bunkered tee shot and a bunkered approach at the ninth.

He can't have been relishing the back nine but after holing a 10 footer for birdie at the par-five 10th, Harrington holed a 40 footer for a two at the 13th and a three footer for a birdie four at the 15th to find himself in the top 10 on three under.

Then came that finish, which leaves him where he has struggled all season — peeping back over his shoulder at the cut line when in other times he might have be looking forward.

As for McIlroy, the 24-year old talent from Holywood missed seven of 14 fairways but while three of those where poor drives cost him three shots, he hit the ball so far and so well that he only had to putt moderately well to find himself within touching distance of the lead alongside the likes of US Open champion Justin Rose and former major winners Martin Kaymer and Vijay Singh.

Cabrera putted even better to shoot a 66 that gave him a one shot lead over Martin Flores and Phil Mickelson, who had 11 single-putts (as well as six in a row) in his 67.

"I felt like I played solid. I gave myself plenty of looks for birdies and felt like I putted a little better today than I have done the last few weeks, so that's a good positive," McIlroy said.

"I was looking to go a few more under par after the turn but I bogeyed three and four. I bounced back at five and six and was trying to squeeze one or two more out of the last few but wasn't able to do that. I think anything sub-70 today was a pretty good score because the wind is a little gusty."

Starting on the back nine, McIlroy opened hostilities by unleashing a 327 yard drive before rolling in a six footer for birdie at the nearly 600-yard par-five.

He missed a birdie chance from seven feet at the 12th but holed putts of similar length for par at the 14th and for birdie at the 15th to get to two under.

His three bogeys all had their genesis in poor drives with the first of them coming at the 16th, where he was way left off the tee and hit his 100 yard chip out into the right semi-rough before two putting from 20 feet.

Typical of McIlroy, his response was classy. At the 221-yard 17th he hit his tee shot to six feet and rolled in the putt before he then reduced the 18th to a 319 yard drive, a 179 yard approach and a 40 foot putt.

Out in 33, he stalled with back to back bogeys at the third and fourth, pulled his tee shot miles left at the former before bunker his approach after a pushed tee shot at the next.

He hit a 20 yard bunker shot to three feet but missed the putt. But it was to be his only aberration on the greens on a day when he used the blade just 28 times and gained nearly two shots on the field.

Again his response was superb. At the par-five fifth he blasted his tee shot 342 yards and hit a 219 yard approach to 30 feet before two putting. Then at the 220-yard sixth he fired his tee shot to 13 feet and rolled in that putt too.

He could easily have finished with a few more birdies but couldn't get up and down from sand at the par-five seventh and then missed a 10 footer at the eighth after yet another bomb off the tee — 326 yards.

"I hit it good off the tee," McIlroy said of his driving. "They were near misses in the semi-rough."

He quickly recalled the wild ones, however, admitting: "I missed a couple by a lot. I missed the 16th and the third by a long way and the fourth as well, if I am being honest. On the two par-fives on the front nine I was just in the semi-rough so that was fine. I felt like I hit the ball pretty well off the tee. The stats don't reflect how well I did hit it."

Like Mickelson, McIlroy could have no complains roll of the new greens, just the varying firmness.

"Honestly I think they are a little bit inconsistent. There are some that are a little softer than others. But I think that's sort of expected with new greens.

"They are so new that they are not going to settle at the same time. There are some that are going to settle a bit more than others. I felt like there were a few balls out there that were stopping pretty quickly and there were a few that were releasing.

"So that's something just to be wary of. At least we have played a round out here now so if I know the ball is going to release a little more on a certain green then I can take that into account."