Padraig battles back
PATIENCE is the greatest virtue for any golfer hoping to survive the rigours of the US Open and Padraig Harrington proved he has it in spades at Pebble Beach yesterday as he applied a world-class finish to a mazy, sometimes crazy, first-round 73.
Four over par and struggling manfully to keep his composure going into his final four holes, Harrington suddenly started playing with the pomp and circumstance of a three-time Major champion, collecting two magnificent birdies in a phenomenal finishing sprint.
Pebble Beach was close to paradise yesterday but 156 of the world's finest golfers slow-broiled in the sun as this 7,040 yards course, among the shortest in recent times at the US Open, played deceptively tough.
"I started nicely but the game went away from me in the middle of the round," said Harrington. "It looked like a day for good scoring and I was going in the wrong direction ... I was trying too hard and probably paid the course a little too much respect.
"The course was benign, the weather was perfect, the greens were soft and the pin positions were very reasonable in most places so I was shocked when I finished to be only three behind."
The early clubhouse lead was shared on one under by Korea's KJ Choi, Canada's 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir, Spain's Rafael Cabrera-Bello, who birdied four of the last seven holes at Walton Heath to qualify for the US Open, and England's Ian Poulter.
Choi came from three-over after the first two holes of his round to three-under through 14 but, despite dropped shots at 15 and 17, was delighted to post his first sub-par round on the first day at the US Open, while Poulter regained the short game touch which helped him win the Accenture World Match Play in February.
Americans delight in telling the story of stopping to ask for directions in Ireland and being told "well, I wouldn't start from here ... "
It seemed a little bit like that for Harrington and his playing companion Phil Mickelson, the pre-tournament favourite, when they were required to open this tournament on the 490-yard 10th, which, along with eight and nine, border the Pacific Ocean and are rated as the toughest three consecutive par-fours in Major Championship golf.
Ominously dubbed 'The Cliffs of Doom', this trilogy is Pebble Beach's answer to Amen Corner and the 10th certainly doesn't offer anyone the opportunity to ease their way into this championship.
Yet Harrington insisted luck had been on the side of those who played 10 early yesterday in the best of conditions and with only a gentle breeze blowing from the north.
Certainly there was absolutely no hint of the trauma to come as Harrington, showing no sign of recent keyhole surgery on his right knee, comfortably made par at 10 and birdie at the uphill, 390-yard 11th, where a meticulous 140-yard approach left him just four feet away from the pin.
So it was first blood to the Irishman, while Mickelson had to scramble hard to get up and down from tangled rough to the back of the green after breaking rule number one at Pebble Beach -- always put your ball below the hole. It would be a foretaste of the frustration to come for Mickelson as he stumbled to a nightmarish opening four-over-par 75.
Yet cracks first appeared in Harrington's façade at the 580-yard 14th, where he had to produce the shot of the day, a majestic blind 45-yard chip over a cavernous bunker to within inches of the tucked pin, to save par after driving into the rough and making two undistinguished efforts to escape with his hybrid.
Mickelson would miss relatively short birdie putts at 14 and 15, where Harrington did well to make bogey after squirting his 3-wood way into the right rough off the tee; leaving his second in the long, tangled grass short of the green and hitting his chip 30 feet beyond the pin.
He'd be equally untidy and a little unlucky at 16. As Harrington was about to pull the trigger on his chip shot from the rough behind the green, a golf ball thumped down out of nowhere and rolled across the putting surface in front of him.
It belonged to Jon Curran from Massachusetts, who'd yanked his tee shot at the third more than 40 yards left, flying it over the grandstand beside 16 and onto the wrong green, just as fellow American John Gore had done moments earlier.
Harrington waited for the ball to roll to a complete halt, then flubbed his chip on the way to the second of an unhappy hat-trick of bogeys which was completed when he failed to get up and down out of sand at the notorious 17th.
Mickelson's day was turning just as sour as a bogey at 16, where he'd had to hit sideways out of a fairway bunker after an elementary clubbing error off the tee, was followed by two more at 17 and 18.
First, he carved his tee shot way right of the green and into the ocean at 17 and put another ball in the Pacific at 18 after failing with a typically ambitious effort to cut a 3-wood around the second of two trees sitting in the fairway.
Mickelson would drop another at the 331-yard fourth after taking two to get out of a greenside bunker and, after missing a couple more birdie putts on his way to the finish, ended up chewing his knuckles in frustration.
Harrington's demeanour at the finish could not have been more different.
Though he'd stumble to two more untidy bogeys at two and three, a stroke for fortune at the long sixth helped quell the panic rising in his throat.
After his ball hopped into a greenside bunker instead of the ocean, Harrington got up and down for birdie there; missed a couple of chances after classy shots into the tiny seventh and daunting eighth before polishing off that superlative birdie at nine.
So a day of contrasting fortunes ended in the same way it had begun, with Harrington beaming like a lighthouse atop the cliffs of doom.
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