Harrington watches the Bourdy to get in the frame

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

GOLF:Energised Dubliner rises to the occasion as he leads the home challenge at Portrush, writes PHILIP REIDGolf Correspondent, at Royal Portrush

THE SCARY, possessed eyes of old – which characterised his Major triumphs – were absent. But, no harm, something else was back, that confident strut with the wide smile that comes with acclaim.

Yesterday, Pádraig Harrington seemed energised by the crowd’s urgings here on the Causeway Coast and responded in kind with a second successive 67, for a 10-under-par midway total of 134, which propelled him into the thick of the battle here at the Irish Open.

Although trailing the leader, Frenchman Gregory Bourdy, by two strokes heading into the weekend, when the real number-crunching is done, Harrington proclaimed:

“It’s very hard to be the leader out there when you’ve got the spotlight on you, it’s a tough position to be in. Chasing, it’s an easier way. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

For sure, Harrington – who headed an exceptionally strong contingent of 11 home players to make the cut, which included all four of Ireland’s Major champions – had a twinkle in his eyes as he anticipated the favoured chase and the prospect of a first win on the European Tour since his 2008 US PGA triumph.

Of that quest for an overdue win, Harrington said, “as much as I’d dearly love to win, it doesn’t have to be this week.

“I know they [wins] are around the corner and tend to come along like buses. When you get one, a few more come along very quickly.”

On another quite exceptional day on the Portrush links, where an official attendance of 27,914 (not including Under 16s) traipsed over the sand hills, Bourdy claimed a one-stroke lead over England’s Mark Foster, with Harrington in a four-way share of third, another shot further adrift.

All in all, though, it was a rewarding day for the Irish contingent, with Harrington (67 for 134), Michael Hoey (67 for 137), Rory McIlroy (69 for 139), Paul McGinley (70 for 139), Graeme McDowell (68 for 139), Darren Clarke (69 for 140), Shane Lowry (68 for 140), Simon Thornton (70 for 140), Mark O’Sullivan (72 for 140), Mark Murphy (73 for 142) and Damien McGrane (71 for 142) all managing to survive into the business end of the tournament.

The cut came on 142, two under, with 70 players surviving.

Harrington, tied-fourth in the recent US Open in San Francisco, started off with back-to-back birdies on his opening two holes – he had six birdies in all, and just one dropped shot on the fifth – and, by the time he reached the 18th, the hairs were standing up on the back of his neck such was the acclaim from the crowds.

“His game quietly impresses me at the minute, he is playing very, very good golf,” observed McDowell, who shared a marquee three-ball with Harrington and defending champion Simon Dyson in the afternoon’s wave.

Harrington’s mindset was on leading the chase on Bourdy.

As he explained, “if you’re chasing, you have nothing to lose.

“You can stand up on the likes of holes nine and ten and open the shoulders on a driver and be relaxed . . . this is a golf course the chasing pack will be able to chase on.

“Somebody is going to go out there and make some birdies and make up some ground.

“It’s that kind of course, that lends itself to great golf but also puts everybody who has something to defend under a little bit of pressure.”

Certainly, the links – and the tournament set-up – has answered every question of it in a hugely positive light if this event is to be seen as a forerunner to a possible return of a British Open here.

For now, though, the focus is on the Irish Open which, as so-called regular events on the European Tour go, is one of the most cherished titles of all.

Harrington, who ended a 25-year drought for a home winner when he claimed the title in 2007, has the task of leading an impressive home contingent, some of whom showed bottle of their own in surviving the cut, not least Murphy who eagled his closing hole, the ninth, to get in on the mark.

The chase, for all of them, is on.

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