Pádraig Harrington is reborn on opening day at Lahinch
47-year-old puts struggles behind him and seizes moment with fine 63 at Irish Open
Pádraig Harrington started his Irish Open with a fine round of 63. Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty
For those spectators who, in their masses, trundled up the sand hills as if conquering Mount Everest, it were as if they’d been sucked back into some time warp.
The focus of their attention was Pádraig Harrington, the 47-year-old three-time Major champion who - having endured an injury-plagued season to date - played with all the aplomb of old in shooting a wonderfully crafted 63, seven-under-par, to plant his name atop the first round leaderboard at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open as the Old Course was showcased in picture postcard perfection.
Harrington, once as high as third in the world rankings but currently ranked 291st, has been playing catch-up without much success this season after suffering a broken bone to his wrist in a fall over the Christmas period. His year’s work to date, four missed cuts in seven appearances on tour, told its own story. The recovery was painstakingly slow, mentally more so than physical.
“I think my poor play and poor performances have annoyed me enough that I have a nagging feeling that I’m running out of time to play golf, and I’d better go play,” remarked Harrington, who’d missed his last three cuts on tour, of how his pride had suffered with such dismal form this season.
In his own mind, there was an urgency to get his act together. “A lot of times, I’m always thinking ahead of myself. This is not the case (this week). I don’t get opportunities like this, and they are dwindling. Am I going to be competitive in three years’ time? Who knows? Five years’ time? So, I’d better do it now while I’m still capable.”
And so a return to links terrain, somewhat of a comfort zone, brought its own healing properties. Harrington played like his old self, producing his array of shot-making inside the ropes to garner birdies; and, energised by loud roars of those outside the ropes who truly appreciated his day’s work, he signed for a 63 that gave him a one stroke lead over South African Zander Lombard, with a group of seven players a further shot back in a share of third place.
On a day when a gentle breeze’s only nuisance value was that it was a crosswind on a number of holes, no fewer than 67 players dipped under par. Jon Rahm, the world number 11 and top-ranked player in the field, opened with a 67, while Race to Dubai leader Matt Wallace recovered from a tough front nine to recover with four birdies on his homeward run for a 68.
Sometimes, players need a kick-start, something to get them going. Harrington’s came early. On the downhill 523 yards Par 4 second hole, the Dubliner’s tee-shot nestled in rough. In anticipating a flyer, he used a 7-iron for the 220 yards approach. The ball flew towards its target, and came to rest 12 feet from the flag. “There’s a lot of luck involved,” said Harrington of estimating such flyers, “but it gave myself a lot of momentum for the rest of the round.”
Harrington covered the front nine in 30 strokes and, having birdied the ninth, brought that momentum into his homeward run with a birdie on the 10th. His only bogey of the round came on the Par 3 11th, where he missed the green and his short game for once deserted him. But he got back on track with back-to-back birdies on the 12th and 13th and finished off in style in front of the appreciative crowd on the 18th as that old, familiar smile of his returned to acknowledge the loud applause.
Links golf is in his DNA and Harrington showcased it with a round that brought back old glories, but aware that it was only one step in the right direction on a journey that doesn’t reach its destination until Sunday. But playing on links again has reinvigorated him. “I know how to work my way around this golf course, links courses, clubbing and things like that, picking the right shot at the right time, what to go for, where to play shots. You know, that’s how you get around. That’s my specialty.
“I just was keen to not waste these three weeks (Irish, Scottish and British Opens) and be thinking, ‘oh, well, I always have next year’. I was kind of thinking, ‘well, maybe I don’t, maybe the Ryder Cup will be in the way next year’. That’s part of it. I’ve said I feel I’ll play this year and have a bit of time out next year (with the captaincy), but I’d better go play.”
His first round actions certainly justified those thoughts.