Harrington in good company for return to US

 

The return to the East Coast of the United States of Padraig Harrington -some four months after his World Cup team victory, which was accomplished a few hundred miles further up the coast in Kiawah Island - for the $2 million Bay Hill Invitational, which starts at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando today, finds the 26-year-old Dubliner in rather good company.

With the noted exception of Phoenix Open champion Jesper Parnevik, all of the other winners' on the US Tour so far this season are competing. Indeed, Phil Mickelson, who extended his string of years on tour with at least one victory to six by claiming the season's first tournament, the Mercedes Championship, is aiming to become only the second player to successfully defend this title: in 1995, Loren Roberts became the first two-time winner of the event.

All eyes will be on Mickelson as he attempts to emulate Roberts. Last year, Mickelson trailed by two shots entering the final round, but fired a closing 65 for a three-stroke win over Australian Stuart Appleby to become the fourth youngest player - at 26 years, nine months and seven days - to win 10 titles on the US Tour; only Horton Smith, Jack Nicklaus and Gene Sarazen accomplished the feat when younger.

And, it is into such an environment, and a field which also includes all four reigning major champions, that Harrington will play his first US event of the season. Now using fat-shaft Wilson irons (which he used in shooting 67-68 closing rounds in the Qatar Masters, his last competitive outing two weeks ago), the Dubliner gladly took up an offer from Bray's Keith Nolan to play a practice round on Tuesday to familiarise himself with the 7,114-yard Par 72 lay-out.

Harrington has been handed reasonable tee-times for his first outing of the year in the States. Today, Harrington tees-off at 11.0 a.m. (4.0 p.m. Irish time) in a three-ball with Chris Perry and Lee Rinker, while tomorrow he has a 7.30 a.m. (12.30 p.m. Irish time) start.

Meanwhile, Nolan, who, on the strength of an appearance in the inaugural Palmer Cup last year, used his initiative to secure a place in the invited field by going straight to Arnold Palmer and reminding the living legend of the fact, will play alongside Franklin Langham and Tom Garner for the opening two rounds as he seeks to make back-to-back cuts.

Nolan has been given a 10.10 a.m. (3.10 p.m. Irish time) start for today's first round, but will be in the penultimate three-ball out on the course tomorrow.

Nolan is more aware than anyone of the need to make some big pay cheques - and it would be somewhat ironic if he choose what is regarded as the strongest field seen so far on the US Tour this season to make his mark.