Game's greatest Houdini
Harrington back to swashbuckling best with scrambling exhibition
IT'S been a while since Padraig Harrington had so much fun on the fairways.
Golf, it seemed, had become almost a chore for the Dubliner since he became a three-time Major champion.
Yet the frustration of two years without a victory since his US PGA Championship success at Oakland Hills melted away during yesterday's second round of the '3' Irish Open.
Instead, Harrington once again became professional golf's greatest Houdini, illuminating a grey, rain-softened day on the Killeen Course with an astounding series of escapes.
Having conceded on Thursday that he's been struggling for confidence, Harrington cast off the chains of uncertainty which have recently ensnared his short game. He virtually laughed his way to the second-round 67 which propelled him into joint third on seven-under par with eight others, including Rory McIlroy and his fellow Ulsterman Michael Hoey, five behind runaway leader Ross Fisher.
Fisher, in the group behind Harrington, went breathtakingly close to posting the European Tour's first 59, settling instead for a 61, his lowest round score in tournament play and matching the all-time record at the Irish Open, set by Graeme McDowell at Baltray last year.
Despite the Englishman's exciting surge to the top of the leaderboard, the early birds who'd flocked to the fairway ropes in their thousands yesterday morning to watch Harrington play with US Open champ McDowell and Damien McGrane, could not tear themselves away from this Irish threeball -- especially given McGrane's determination to match Harrington's spectacular efforts with several miracle shots of his own.
In fact, there was no shortage of high-class action elsewhere on the golf course. Shane Lowry thrilled the army of fans who travelled from Co Offaly to see him defending his title by chipping in brilliantly for birdie from the foot of the tall bank in front of the green at 17.
After the disappointment of his three-over-par 74 on Thursday, Lowry (23) ensured his many friends and neighbours from Clara would have something to do at the weekend as he slipstreamed his playing companion Fisher to a wonderful second-round 65.
McIlroy (21) also holed out brilliantly from a nasty lie well to the right of a greenside bunker at 13 as he reclaimed the bragging rights from Darren Clarke yesterday with a 68, two better than Ulster's Ryder Cup vice-captain, who found the going far tougher as he "lost the pace of the greens".
Yet the performance of Harrington was utterly compelling for the crowd of 17,396 as he recaptured some of the fearless, carefree qualities of his youth.
Even McDowell, who "struggled horrendously" on the greens and, after signing for a lacklustre 72, spent an anxious afternoon hovering just inside the cut mark on level par admitted he'd been captivated by the fireworks exploding around him.
"I had to stand there and watch chip-ins and bombs and all that kind of stuff going on," said McDowell, who survived, along with eight more of the 27 Irishmen in the field.
"In one sense it was frustrating because I didn't hit the ball badly but I've just had a lesson over the last two days from the boys there on how to get the ball up and down and I need to take heed of it."
Nodding towards Harrington, McDowell went on: "You've got to respect that guy behind me there. He knows how to scramble, he knows how to handle himself."
The Ulsterman's vastly experienced caddie Ken Comboy went further, describing Harrington's score as "phenomenal", saying it was due to "the best short-game display I've ever seen in my life".
"It was Red Arrows from Harrington today, his ball was flying all over the place," he went on: "Yet it's not by coincidence he's regarded as the No 1 scrambler in the world. He's brilliant at it."
The high jinks began when Harrington, two under through the turn after nice birdies at eight and nine, drove deep into the trees to the left of 11. He found a fairly decent lie in the ferns but in his determination not to hit his escape through the fairway, the Dubliner topped his ball into nearby rough.
Bogey seemed likely when his approach shot came to rest 20 feet from the pin but Harrington holed the putt, underlining what a morale-boost this effort was by punching the air as the ball dropped.
Meath man McGrane chipped in for birdie there and holed a 30-foot monster for another at 12 as he compiled a one-over-par 72, which he rated as "fairly reasonable" after hitting his ball into water three times yesterday.
Yet the most outrageous putt of the day was holed by Harrington at 15. He hit this 50-footer so hard, TV commentator Wayne 'Radar' Reilly reckoned "he'd need a wedge for the next" ... yet the ball crashed into the back of the hole, hopped three inches into the air and hit the front lip before falling into the cup.
Harrington took a fit of the giggles as he walked after his ball and McGrane laughed too. After a spell in which he'd begun to wonder if the cups were covered with cellophane, suddenly he couldn't see putts going anywhere but in.
"It was nice," he admitted, minutes after holing deftly from 20-feet for his fifth birdie of the day at the last. "I played a lot of amateur golf with Damien and I putted today like I did in my amateur days."
Yet his chip-in for par from behind the green at 17 will be best remembered. The drama started when Harrington pushed his tee shot into a gorse bush well right of the fairway.
After a 15-minute hiatus as he waited for a referee to come and oversee his shot from the middle of the bush, Harrington blasted his ball back onto the fairway, though there were sighs of dismay as his wedged approach bounced through the back of the green.
McDowell's caddie recalled: "As we'd waited for Harrington to play, myself and Graeme joked he'd probably hit it over the back and hole the chip -- then he went and did it. He makes the uncommon appear almost predictable."
Harrington was so pumped up, he actually followed his ball as it tracked unerringly towards the hole.
"With about three feet to go, I stepped after it, which is unusual for me," he admitted. "Normally I'm not so cocky but it was one of those days, everything I looked at, I felt was going to drop."
The day had been "entertaining", he said, but the return of his short game, after it had deserted him at St Andrews, represents a serious boost to flagging confidence.
"I've been playing solidly and hitting it quite well off the tee but it's been frustrating to drive it well, hit it on the green and then miss putts," he said.
"It's more important to hole putts and chip in and do all that in terms of performing and scoring. Of course, you'd always like to have both ends of the game working, where you hit the ball great and putt well. That's the Holy Grail and we very rarely put it together."
It's moot if Ireland's Laughing Cavalier or anyone else will catch Fisher this weekend if he continues play as flawlessly, though some described his sterling effort yesterday as "one that got away".
Needing two more birdies in his final four holes to make history, he pushed an eight foot opportunity wide of the cup at 15 and played the final three holes in par. In fairness, an ill-wind drove heavy rain in off Lough Leane as Fisher played those closing holes.
Maybe Mother Nature wanted to spare Killarney's blushes.