Harrington outshines 'sloppy' McIlroy at Irish Open
It takes something really special to persuade several thousand people to drive out into the Irish countryside at a time they would normally be wrapped up in bed and go stomping for several miles through long grass laden with early-morning dew.
So, as approval ratings go, the loud ovation Rory McIlroy received from the multitude surrounding Fota Island's 10th tee at 7.50 yesterday morning offered hearty endorsement of the 25-year-old Ulsterman's decision to play for Ireland at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Sadly, McIlroy's golf didn't live up to the occasion. Instead of bursting out of the blocks like Usain Bolt, the Holywood native posted a jaded-looking first-round 74 that fell so far short of expectations, it tempted one to pluck another name from Olympics folklore, Eddie The Eagle.
Still, those who rose before the sun to go on dawn patrol at the Irish Open were rewarded with a richly heartening display from McIlroy's playing companion and fellow multiple Major champion Padraig Harrington in the shape of a two-under-par 69.
In turn, Harrington expressed gratitude for the enthusiastic support he received yesterday in the home county of his late father, Paddy, saying it helped give him momentum in the long, wearying scrabble to return to the upper echelons of world golf.
At the end of an intriguing opening day, Harrington was five strokes off the lead set by high-flying Finn Mikko Ilonen with a 'record' 64 on the stretched Deerpark Course and just one behind Ireland's best, Graeme McDowell and Michael Hoey, who both shot 69.
Most prominent among those clustered on two-under with Harrington was 19-year-old Gavin Moynihan, an amateur who plays out of The Island Golf Club and has just completed his first year on a golf scholarship at the University of Alabama.
Another Dubliner, Peter Lawrie, offered encouraging evidence that a harrowing form slump which led him to miss the cut at 12 of his last 14 tournaments may be coming to an end with a satisfying 69.
After landing seven birdies and an eagle in Wednesday's pro-am, World No 6 McIlroy was widely expected to embark on another spree yesterday. Yet, despite driving his ball with customary power and aplomb, his approach play and short game were stunningly poor.
So much so, one could only deduce that McIlroy, playing his sixth tournament in an eight-week spell that included the break up of his engagement, was struggling to get back into top gear scoring wise after a stamina- sapping week at the US Open. Not that he was making any excuses.
"I just was very sloppy with the scoring clubs today," said McIlroy. "Wedges, short game, the putting, all of that was just a little off.
"I drove the ball beautifully again and put myself in great positions off the tee," he added.
"I just wasn't able to take advantage. Hopefully I'll do a better job tomorrow, and do something in the mid-sixties, just to be here at the weekend."
McIlroy, on occasion, has been spectacularly inconsistent in recent tournaments, but he insisted yesterday's effort was different.
"This isn't as bad as some of the rounds I've thrown in, 76 or 77s. I'm three-over par, but I could bounce back pretty quickly tomorrow, especially on the front nine, where you've got the two par-fives in a row early on."
Reunited with his golf clubs only on Wednesday morning after they went missing following Sunday's overnight flight from Newark to Dublin, McIlroy was denied the opportunity to practice until the eve of the tournament.
Yet that cannot explain how he missed nine of 18 greens, many of them from inside wedge distance after hitting monster drives into the heart of so many of Fota's relatively narrow but lush fairways.
It was interesting recently to hear Des Smyth suggest that players with hands as famously fast as McIlroy's sometimes can find it difficult to throttle right back to play slower, three-quarter wedge shots with customary finesse.
This certainly appeared to be the case with McIlroy on occasion yesterday and he confirmed:
"At times I feel very comfortable with them and at other times, I'll struggle with my distance control because of that.
"We've always gone back, Michael and myself, to controlling the wedge swing with the body and keeping the triangle (formed by the arms and shoulders) constant all the way through the swing and controlling everything with the big muscles, because at the end of the day, they're the most consistent ones you have.
"Start to throw your wrist and hands into it and you start getting flippy and you'll be much more inconsistent," he added.
"It's something to work on at the range today maybe, and something to try and get better at, not just this week but leading up to the Scottish and Open Championships."
McIlroy slipped to two-over through four; waited until his ninth, the par-five 18th, to register his first birdie of the tournament; then made four slip-shod bogeys and just two more birdies on the journey home.
By contrast, Harrington was solid as a rock, making just one bogey after pulling his five-wood approach into water fronting the green at 18, and holing three of a plethora of long-range birdie chances he gave himself.
"Hit it to 15-20 feet all day, and hardly got myself in trouble," he explained. "It's hard to hole those putts consistently. Either I need to hit it closer or have a good day on the greens to get a low one, like a 65, but 69 does no harm.
Harrington was particularly pleased to rediscover his once famous powers of recovery out of deep greenside rough at 12 and after short-siding himself in a bunker at the par-three seventh.
"Those were really good chip shots. I haven't been doing that too well, so that was very satisfying," he said. "The crowds were great today and I feel I'm in a good place where I can shoot some good scores and, hopefully give them something to cheer about."
Irish Open Diary
Slimline Clarke eager to taste a slice of good luck
Darren Clarke still looks thin as a whippet. If people were stunned earlier this year by his svelte appearance after he lost more than 40lbs over the winter, the fact that the impulsive Northern Irishman has stuck fast to his fitness regime is to his credit.
Yet, Clarke, who opened with a one-over 72 yesterday, admits he's getting so frustrated with his failure to get results from his hard work on the range and consequent good golf.
"If the ball continues to resist going in the hole, I will really enjoy putting all the weight I have lost back on again."
Marcel Siem expects to be Daddy Cool after the Irish Open as he awaits the imminent birth of his second child.
"On Monday we're going to get the baby, we know that. It's going to be a special week for me at the BMW International, my home tournament, second baby," said the German, who followed-up last week 12th place at the US Open by scorching into a share of second place with a five-under 66.
"I've got the shivers already, it's really cool," added Siem, who played the Fota back nine in a stunning six-under 29!
Number of the day
16,178 - The attendance at Fota Island yesterday was nearly 900 greater than the 15,282 who came through the gates of Carton House on Thursday in 2013. Naturally enough, this pales alongside the 23,283 who flocked to Royal Portrush for the 2012 first round, while 18,303 turned up on Day One of the tournament in Killarney in 2011.
Quote of the day
"I get tremendous support down here, my heritage comes from Cork, and I spent my summer holidays here as a boy. It feels like home support and there's a great buzz. It lends momentum and you always need momentum to make good things happen out here." - Padraig Harrington, whose late father Paddy hailed from Cork.
IRISH OPEN, LIVE, SKY SPORTS 4, 10.00/RTE 1, 10.05