Fearless Padraig Harrington tames Royal County Down as Rory McIlroy endures nightmare
There was some solace for Irish golf fans today following Rory McIlroy's abysmal start to the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down thanks to the exploits of Padraig Harrington.
It's been an eventful week for the Dubliner who was forced to withdraw from the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last week with a shoulder injury, missed out on US Open qualification by a single shot at Walton Heath on Monday and now has the clubhouse lead in his national open.
Harrington, whose victory in the Honda Classic in March was his first on a major tour since the 2008 US PGA, was one over par after 10 holes before carding five birdies in the next six to finish one shot ahead of former Ryder Cup team-mate Soren Hansen.
"After nine or 10 holes I thought to myself 'C'mon, we've got to hit a good shot, no need to be afraid,'" said Harrington, who lasted just two holes at Wentworth before pulling out with a shoulder injury, but received intensive treatment and narrowly missed out on qualifying for the US Open four days later.
"I know from experience now that I'm in a position where there's many ways of competing in this tournament. I've two options; play great from now on and try and get away from the field or play average and fight it out on Sunday afternoon."
World number one and tournament host Rory McIlroy managed to retain his sense of humour despite suffering a nightmare first round in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open on Thursday.
McIlroy carded nine bogeys and no birdies in an opening 80 at Royal County Down, six days after shooting 78 to miss the cut in the defence of his BMW PGA Championship title at Wentworth.
Only seven of the 78 morning starters broke par - US Open champion Martin Kaymer shot 79 playing alongside McIlroy - but former champion Padraig Harrington took advantage of marginally easier conditions in the afternoon to lead after a four-under 67.
"It was not quite as difficult as I made it look," McIlroy admitted with a wry smile after an opening round played in cold, blustery conditions and the occasional rain shower.
"I was hitting it well on the range, keeping it down and hitting half shots, but the wind was not up that much on the course and I was caught between trying to play two ways. That led to missing greens, which led to lots of eight to 12-foot putts for par, which led to missing all of them."
McIlroy has pledged to donate all of his prize money this week to his charitable foundation, while his association with the event ensured a top-class field and a sell-out crowd of 20,000 each day.
"It's disappointing because I want to go out there and play well, not just for myself but for a lot of other people," McIlroy added. "I'll just have to pick myself up and go out there tomorrow and shoot a good one. I want to give the fans something to cheer about and not just get sympathy claps as I got coming off the ninth green.
"My goal will be to make some birdies, make my first birdie of the tournament at some point. I've missed the cut the last two years so I don't want to make it three in a row. I want to at least go out there tomorrow and fight for it, try to claw my way back towards the cut line and if I can sneak in there, that'll be great."
It is the fourth time McIlroy has recorded a score in the 80s as a professional, the worst being an 83 in South Africa a few months after turning professional in 2007 and the most famous his second round of 80 in the 2010 Open and final round of 80 when leading the 2011 Masters by four shots.
It was also the four-time major winner's first round without a birdie since a second-round 79 in the Memorial Tournament in 2012.
"It's my fifth week in a row and I'm not saying I felt flat out there, but just trying to muster something up to get myself going and get some sort of momentum was difficult," added McIlroy, who said on Wednesday he felt "refreshed" after his weekend off.
Playing alongside McIlroy, Rickie Fowler carded an opening 71 in his first outing since winning the Players Championship at Sawgrass, while Luke Donald went one better with a 70.
Donald dropped out of the world's top 60 on Monday to miss out on qualifying for the US Open, but could claim one of three places up for grabs in the Open at St Andrews by finishing in the top 10 here.
"I'm trying not to think about that too much, I'm just trying to play a solid tournament and get some consistency," the former world number one said.
Michael Hoey and Simon Thornton are next best of the Irish behind Harrington on level par with Graeme McDowell, Paul McGinley, Shane Lowry and amateur Gary Hurley a shot further back.