Irish Open 2015: Rory McIlroy's day ends in gloom but crowd lifted by Padraig Harrington's superb display
A total of 17 years and 13 shots separated multiple Major winners Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy after an eventful and intriguing opening day of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Royal County Down.
Harrington, 43, the man who broke the mould for Irish golf by following his 2007 Irish Open win with two British Open titles and a USPGA Championship, was hailed and celebrated by the huge galleries as he finished joint leader on four-under par with a 67 alongside Germany's Maximilian Kieffer.
Soren Hansen, winner of the tournament at Fota Island in 2002, was next best on three-under, and then came England's Danny Willett, Soren Kjeldsen of Denmark and Emiliano Grillo of Argentina, all on two-under par.
The severity of the weather and the acknowledged quality of the golfing challenge presented by Royal County Down resulted in only 13 players breaking the par of 71.
Rory McIlroy, four times a Major winner, and the world's number one, normally deals in birdies, not bogeys.
This was a rare day on which it all went wrong for the inspirational tournament host, as he scored an 80 for only the fourth time in his professional career, and failed to register a birdie for the first time since The Memorial Tournament in 2012.
On the upside, the home supporters warmed to Padraig Harrington racing up the leaderboard to set the clubhouse lead, and later settle for joint leadership alongside Kieffer.
The mood after McIlroy's morning 80 had been one of slight deflation, but Harrington and Shane Lowry, who ended with a one-over 72, sent the fans home in good fettle.
Harrington had turned in one-over par, but decided to take the shackles off, and have a good old-fashioned go at taking on the remaining eight holes.
Good job he did, for he got the rewards - five birdies in six holes, including three in a row on holes 11,12, and 13, brought the jaunty stride back and the crowd loved it.
It says much for his mood and demeanour, that he could be disappointed to only make par at the long 18th hole.
"It's a bit early doors now doing that on Thursday. As I said to Ronan (Flood, his caddie),when the putts were dropping, it would be nice if they were dropping like that on Sunday.
"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.
"Shooting a good first day just gives me two ways of winning the tournament.
"If I shot three-over par today I'd have to play great over the next three days. Now I'm in a position where If I keep my head on and play OK for the next three days I should have a chance on Sunday, and obviously if I play well the next three days, other people are going to have to come and catch me," said Harrington.
Harrington revealed that he was not aware of Rory McIlroy's travails earlier in the day when he went out to play.
"I had no idea. I don't watch anything that goes on.
"I knew there was some tough scoring out there but no, I hadn't seen his score or anything like that.
"As Irish golfers we're all very grateful to Rory for all he's done to get such a great field here and he's had a lot of commitments. This game is all about preparation and I'm sure he had a lot of extra stuff on which would have affected his preparation for actually playing the tournament," said Harrington.
Shane Lowry felt he could have done better than level-par and there was a glint in his eye as he spoke about how much he would love to be fighting it out with Harrington for the title on Sunday.
"My game is good. I was in control although I struggled a bit to read the greens.
"Level-par was the target going out. I knew it would be a bit of a grind, but those are days I enjoy. I wouldn't like it every day but I enjoyed it out there.
"I knew Padraig was going well. Maybe I can shoot a good score tomorrow and get up there," he said.
Meanwhile, it was a different story for McIlroy.
The tournament's poster boy, the driving force, the perfect host, could not find a spark of inspiration when it most mattered.
It was Sod's, not God's Law that manifested on the daunting links challenge.
Everyone connected with the tournament, bar the other 155 starters fervently hoped and prayed that Rory would throw off the shackles that have afflicted him so often in his national Open. So where did it all go wrong?
Typically honest, McIlroy refused to make excuses. He wanted to take time in the afternoon to properly analyse the round but ironically, it seemed as if he was under- rather than over-stimulated.
Call it 'flat' but that's how he played. Lacklustre, no spark, no bit of luck either that might have suddenly transformed his round.
" I don't think I was trying too hard. If anything, it was almost the other way.
"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.
"You know what to expect when you come to an Irish Open, and I've said for the last couple of years I want to try and embrace it, and relish the fact that you're here, and everyone wants to see you do well.
"So you should be able to use that to your advantage. I just haven't been able to do that as of yet," he said.
There was no chance of McIlroy seeking solace by blaming the course or the weather. "It's tough, but it's not quite as tough as I made it look out there. Actually, I felt like I put myself in good positions off the tee, but with my iron play, I was sort of caught in between trying to play two ways.
"I hit it really well on the range and was keeping the ball down, and I was hitting lovely little half shots the whole time,
"When I got out on the golf course, the wind wasn't up that much at the start and I felt like I didn't need to hit those shots so much, so I was sort of caught in between what shot to play out there a little bit.
"And then you know, my poor iron play led to missed greens, which led to giving myself a lot of eight- to 12-footers for pars, and that led to missing all of them.
"It was pretty good off the tee and it just got worse as I got closer to the green," he said.
The standards he has set are huge, and it is staggering to consider that McIlroy failed to register even one birdie on the round, something that has not happened since the second round of the 2012 Memorial Tournament.
He missed the cut there and it will take a minor, or maybe even a huge, miracle for him to turn it around and get to play the weekend.
But when McIlroy is a golfer under pressure, then anything is possible, especially if he gets a good start.
Live, Sky Sports 4/RTE 1, 12.0
Byron Nelson Championship,
Live, Sky Sports 4, 9.0pm