Pádraig Harrington scorched past his rivals in the weather-lashed Dubai Duty Free Irish Open and confessed - It’s time to put the boot in.
Ireland’s two time Open champion decided attack was the best form of defence and rattled in five birdies in six holes on the back nine to bring the beast that is Royal County Down to its knees.
A four under 67 — rated a new course record given the changes made to the course for the 2007 Walker Cup — left him tied for the lead with Germany’s Max Kieffer — one clear of 2002 champion Soren Hansen — and he’s now targeting another early morning birdie barrage that could kill off half his rivals.
Gunning for a win that would secure his US Open place, Harrington beamed: “I've two options, play great from now on and try and get away from the field or play average and fight it out on Sunday afternoon.
“Shooting a good first day just gives me two ways of winning the tournament. If I shot three over par today I'd have to play great over the next three days.
“Now I'm in a position where If I keep my head on and play ok for the next three days I should have a chance on Sunday.
“And obviously if I play well the next three days, other people are going to have to come and catch me.”
Harrington has two events to make the world’s Top 60 who qualify for the US Open at Chambers Bay but he insisted: “You know, winning is the best thing ever.
“It’s all about winning another Irish Open and the US Open will look after itself.”
The world No 86 sounded shocked to hear that world No 1 Rory McIlroy had crashed to an 80 in his fifth event on the trot, saying: “Maybe this week has been a step to far.
“He’s given so much to the Irish Open and he’s had a lot of distraction.
“We’re all grateful, as Irish pros for what he’s done. But maybe it’s been a bit of a sacrifice for him.”
If McIlroy showed the field some mercy, Harrington has no plans to take his foot off the gas on a track that Graeme McDowell labeled “a beast” after three closing bogeys gave him a one over 72.
Former Royal County Down assistant Simon Thornton and Belfast ace Michael Hoey posted level par 71s as Paul McGinley shot a 72 to match McDowell and 2009 champion Shane Lowry.
The Offaly ace was one under with four to go but he double bogeyed the 15th from nowhere and missed a tiddler to bogey the 16th before snatching a closing birdie.
Playing just behind Harrington, Lowry said: “I felt I really deserved that one on the last because one over par was the worst I could have shot today.
“All I could see all day was Padraig’s a**e in the air (picking the ball out of the hole) — I knew he was shooting a good score so maybe I can shoot under par tomorrow and be right there.”
Harrington had two birdies and two bogeys in his first six holes but then came alive after missing a short par putt at the 10th.
Throwing caution to the wind, he birdied three in a row from the 11th to go two under and picked up two more shots at the 15th and 16th to get the crowd going.
Fully recovered from a recent shoulder injury, Harri said: “On the first nine I felt we were having to play a little defensive and you’ve gotta take some chances out there.
“I was one over after 10 holes, so it was a nice turnaround. Even though the course and the conditions are difficult, eventually you're going to have to take a few shots on.”
Denied in two North of Ireland finals as an amateur as well as the 2012 Irish Open at Royal Portrush, the Dubliner said before the start that he’d back an Irishman against the field over the Newcastle links.
KO’d by a shoulder injury at Wentworth last week and denied in US Open qualifying on Monday, he said: “I’d love to play a tough links golf course every day of my life. That's what I was brought up playing. That's what I specialise at.
“I'm not saying it's going to be easy the next three days, but certainly coming to a course like this is definitely suiting me.
“There's a way around a links golf course in these sort of conditions, and I found it today and hopefully I find it the next three days.”
On his back nine of 32, he said: “Yeah, it was very nice. It’s still early days, but hopefully I’ll have maybe one or two more runs like that during the week, and if I do, I'll be right there at the end.”
West Waterford amateur Gary Hurley shot a two over 73 to keep alive his chances of making the cut for the second year running.