Monday 27 March 2017

Harrington gets tough to stake real claim

Karl MacGinty

NOBODY in golf responds better to 'the fear factor' than Padraig Harrington, as the Dubliner proved beyond any doubt yesterday after powering into contention at the BMW PGA Championship with a wonderful, bogey-free 67.

It's not by accident that Harrington should match his career low at Wentworth after the recent transformation of the West Course from the genteel old lady of English courses to one of the most intimidating sirens in European golf.

As he entered the weekend on four-under-par, within two strokes of Luke Donald's tournament lead, Harrington was relishing another 36 holes on a course so challenging, it helps rekindle the gung-ho spirit which established him as a three-time Major champion.

Any doubts about Harrington's status as one of the greatest adrenaline junkies in professional golf were obliterated minutes after he'd signed for the best round on the second day of a tournament he used shun like a head cold.

As course re-designer Ernie Els admitted he'd been deeply hurt by attacks on his handiwork from fellow Tour professionals, leading to a voluble shouting match with Tour Players Chairman Thomas Bjorn on the range yesterday morning, Harrington fully endorsed the South African's efforts to transform The Burma Road into one of the most intimidating tracks in the professional game.

The Dubliner was visibly taken aback when informed of yesterday's announcement by Wentworth's multi-millionaire proprietor Richard Caring that hugely controversial changes made to the 18th hole during the €8m-plus re-design would be reconsidered after this year's championship.

Caring conceded: "Ernie was right and I was wrong" in insisting on several new features which upset the fine balance between risk and reward at a hole which used provide more eagles and birdies than a hatchery.

The small elevated green, which has babbling brook to its front and left and a bottomless nest of bunkers to the right and rear, yielded just one eagle in the first two days as the vast majority of Europe's elite professionals laid-up.

Yet Harrington's belief that the new 18th "is a good hole" offered wonderful insight into the fighting spirit which helped establish him as one of the most formidable golfers of his generation.

danger

"The old hole was just bland and there was no danger for a guy coming down the last," he insisted, adding with relish: "Well, there's danger coming down there now. If anybody couldn't make birdie on that hole before, they were disgusted, but now it has to be played."

Unlike Els, who again went for the green in two yesterday and this time made it across the water (hitting a seven-iron 191 yards to 20 feet), Harrington actually laid-up for the second day in succession after his three-wood off the tee landed in the first cut of rough on the right, 210 yards from the front of the green.

" I hit a pitching wedge too far into the next cut of rough and had a very tricky job from there. Hitting my lob-wedge to three feet from there was my shot of the day," said the Dubliner, who stepped back off the putt a few times before completing his fourth birdie of the day.

Of course, Harrington would be leading Donald by one stroke had he not racked-up that treble-bogey eight on 17 in the first round . . . and once again the 38-year-old showed the champion's spirit as he explained how this chastening episode actually helped inspire him.

"I used my driver three times today and each time I reached for the club, I thought carefully about it," he said. "It kept me on edge and that's the way I like to be. I wouldn't say I've played great this week, but I enjoy it and I play better when I play like I have these last two days. When I am a bit anxious, I tighten my focus."

The challenges offered by Wentworth Mark II certainly have commanded the Irishman's full attention and Harrington took huge satisfaction from making his four after hitting his tee-shot into a fairway bunker or when he saved par once again with a brilliant shot to inches out of a greenside trap at 15.

Yet the key difference between Wentworth now and the course which Harrington used to revile so much -- he played Europe's flagship event just three times in the past seven years -- are the modern sand-based putting surfaces which used make a lottery of this championship.

Mind you, those greens are so new, they can't be cut as tight as one would usually expect, meaning they can get a bit fluffy in the evening, which Damien McGrane discovered late on yesterday as he chiselled out a level-par-71 which put him in contention on two-under.

He has just one European Tour victory to Harrington's 14 and the €3.151m he's banked in eight consecutive seasons on Tour is one tenth of Dubliner's career prizemoney. Yet at Wentworth yesterday McGrane showed a defining trait he shares with his exalted -- he's at his best when the going gets tough.

Graeme McDowell, on one-under after his second-round 71, was next best of the eight Irish who made the weekend.

Perhaps the most remarkable of them was Peter Lawrie, who was one inside the cut mark on two-over despite a triple-bogey eight at the last hole of his second-round 74.

Though seven shots off the pace on one-over-par after yesterday's 69, Rory McIlroy still should not be ruled out of contention. "My first two rounds have not been great, but after Quail Hollow, I'll take a couple of 65s now," he said.

A brilliant hat-trick of birdies at the third, fourth and fifth holes yesterday suggest McIlroy is in good enough form to launch another spectacular weekend charge. Yet he'll have to exercise better shot selection than he did off a precarious stance in rough to the right of 15, when a shot he later described as "stupid" led to double-bogey six.

Another young man with high ambitions of making inroads at the weekend is Shane Lowry. "I've been playing well coming into this week, so it'd have been a huge downer to miss the cut here," said the Clara man after his level-par 71.

Sadly, Darren Clarke won't have the chance to prove anything this weekend, a double-bogey seven at the last sealing a second-round 77 and his fate on 10-over, but Paul McGinley made it through on two-over after a 73 yesterday.

BMW-PGA Championship

Live, BBC1, 2.15-4.30; BBC2 4.30-6.35

Irish Independent

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