Pádraig Harrington made a mockery of his pre-tournament odds when he opened with a super 68 to move into contention for the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at sun-kissed Ballyliffin.
On a day when anyone watching Rory McIlroy from tee to green (but not putting) would have bet the house on him shooting in the mid-60s rather than posting a frustrating 70, Harrington rolled back the years to go into today's second round just a shot behind New Zealander Ryan Fox, who shot 67, on four-under par.
Locked in a seven-way tie for second with the likes of Lee Westwood and Danny Willett, the three-time major winner had every reason to sound upbeat after thrilling the 13,716-strong home crowd with some vintage play.
“There's not often there's value in my game,” Harrington said with a big grin when reminded about his pre-tournament odds of 66-1.
“The bookies in Ireland would make sure they cut you to a low price knowing that sentimentally people would back you.
“I was surprised, the bookies don't normally get it wrong, but to put me out there at 66 to 1 on a links golf course was strange on their part, at home in my home country. My performances always go up when it comes to a links course."
He was rated 120-1 on some exchanges early in the week and wondered if the 66-1 was calculated even factoring in his links pedigree.
"Maybe that says I'm even worse than I thought!” he joked.
Harrington’s game is never far away and while he struggled to find the narrow fairways early in his round and was one over after a bogey at his sixth (the 15th), his round turned when he chipped in for an eagle at the par-five 17th, then got a line of sight drop from heavy rough at the 18th and managed to save par.
“I needed momentum at that stage,” he said of his chip-in eagle. “I played well early on and 15, I played really badly and maybe things were starting to get away from me and just to chip-in and get myself under par, it’s always nice."
When he pulled off a difficult sand save at the first, he was well and truly off and running and after making three birdies in four holes from the fourth — the pick of them a gallery pleasing two after a wedge to six feet at the 170-yard seventh — he made another trademark par save at the eighth.
Trying to cut the corner of the dogleg, he plugged his tee shot in the revetted face of a fairway bunker, advanced the ball to within 92 yards of the pin rather than taking a penalty drop and got up and down for his four.
He knows there is still a long way to go before he can think of winning but his satisfaction contrasted with the frustration felt by McIlroy, who missed seven putts inside eight feet in a 70 that could have been a 66 or 67 with ease.
“It could have been a lot better,” McIlroy conceded after a 32-putt round that saw him gain 7.5 strokes on the field from tee to green but lost more than four strokes to the field on the greens, leaving him third last for strokes-gained putting
"It's the best I hit the ball in a long time.... I just struggled on the greens."
Admitting he'd left Phil Kenyon several weeks ago, hhe added: “I'd love to be able to say I'm saving them for a couple weeks' time.
“What I saw out there today was really good and I just need to continue to do that and as I said just hole a few more putts.
"If I could improve as the week goes on, heading into Carnoustie in that aspect, I'd be really happy.
“I'm not walking away from this round satisfied but I'm very happy with one part of my game and not very happy with the other.
“I guess the positives outweigh the negatives at this point and hopefully, if I can just chip away at those negatives over the next few days, I’ll be happy.”
Graeme McDowell fought back from two over after 11 holes to post a one-under 71 and put his travel problems behind him.
But it was a frustrating day for Shane Lowry, who turned a potential 68 into a 72 when three-putted the 15th, failed to birdie the par-five 17th and then did well to bogey the 18th from eight feet after flying the green from the deep rough on the right.
“I played four bad holes at the end there,” Lowry said after making an eight-footer for bogey on the last for a 72 that leaves him tied for 44th with Ruaidhri McGee and Simon Thornton on level par
“I got a bit frustrated out there and let it get to me a little bit, but that was a nice putt on the last. I would have been very disappointed to shoot over par.
“The scoring’s not hectic is it, so try and get out early in the morning and shoot a good score."
The Clara man had 34 putts in his round and planned to head to the practice putting green before heading home to reflect on his day.
"I struggled with them because I don't think they look as quick as they are and I just hit a lot of putts too hard," he said.
"That was a big thing. I might have to hit a few putts now. I feel like the putting green was possibly a fraction slower than the ones on the course, I'm not sure."
Paul Dunne was three-over par with six to play but despite struggling from the tee, he managed to scramble for a one-over 73 that leaves him tied for 66th with Cormac Sharvin, Gavin Moynihan, Paul McGinley and Colm Moriarty, who closed with a double-bogey six at the ninth.
“Laziness,” Dunne said of the double bogey at the second that erased his opening birdie. “Hit it out of bounds with a two-iron with the rest of Donegal on the left.
"It was just a brain-dead moment so early in the round."
Fox loving Irish links
Early pace-setter Ryan Fox might be from New Zealand but he insists he feels right at home in Ballyliffin.
After posting a five-under 67 to take the early lead, he beamed: "I love it. It reminds me quite a lot of home actually.
"The first time I played links golf was a couple of years ago in this part of the world and I love the challenge of it."
A son of former All Blacks legend Grant Fox, the Kiwi is hoping his love of links pays off for the second year running.
After finishing tied fourth at Portstewart last year to win his place in The Open, he's looking for a repeat.
He said: "I'd love to be in The Open and Carnoustie is one of the best golf courses in the world I think and I'd love the chance to play there in an Open.
"As good a start as I can have, really, and hopefully three more rounds and if I can sneak in that top five like last year and get an Open spot, that would be great.
"If not, I've got another chance next week. Hopefully one of the next two weeks would be great."
Good crowds in Donegal
Fans turned up in droves for the first round in Ballyliffin with 13,716 coming through the gates to bask in the sunshine yesterday.
While that figure is well down on the record 23,283 that flocked to Royal Portrush for the opening round in 2012, it's still a bigger opening day attendance that the 2016 staging at The K Club, when just 12,834 turned up.
Including Wednesday’s Pro-Am, 25,203 fans have attended so far, which is 5,000 fewer than the first two days at Portstewart last year.
Given the remote location, Tourism Ireland can only be happy with the attendance so far and the sensational pictures of Donegal that are being beamed into 490 million homes in 150 countries.
"The overall impact to the local area for the week is €10m - just the week of the tournament," said Ballyliffin's General Manager, John Farren.
"The commercial value of putting those pictures into 500 million homes is probably $3-400 million. That's what we're after and that's where the figure of $100m comes from. In terms of the commercial value within the next 2-3 years to this region, I would put it at close to $100m.
"We have seen a spike in enquiries and bookings in terms of this year and next year with Royal Portrush hosting The Open, that's another big year for the north coast. We are keen to be associated with that swing of golf courses on the north coast from Portrush right across, including Portstewart, Castlerock, ourselves, Rosapenna and Portsalon.
"There are some fantastic links up where which are relatively undiscovered locally, never mind internationally. There are people here in Donegal this week for the first time and they're from Dublin. It speaks volumes about where we are at and where we need to get to."
American designer Gil Hanse, arguably the world's best golf architect, is working on the old links at Narin & Portnoo to bring it up to international standards and offer locals and visitors another great place to play.
"The involvement of Hanse in the Narin and Portnoo project is nothing but good news for the area and Irish golf in general," Farren said.
"It's a huge boost for golf in the northwest and an expression of confidence in the product that is up here and the raw material that is up here.,
“It puts Donegal on the world stage because you don't bring in Gil Hanse and not deliver a world-class product. People come not to play one or two courses but a whole suite of courses and everything has to be to a standard.
“So it is about increasing the overall average standard of all the golf courses up here and it is refreshing to get this vote of confidence and people see the potential not just in Donegal but in Irish golf. We have 14 links courses in Donegal. Lets not let them lie idle.”