THE last man into the field, Padraig Harrington, was first in the pecking order after a superb opening 66 at the prestigious PGA Grand Slam Championship in Bermuda.
Called into the elite four-man field over the weekend after Open Champion Ernie Els was ruled out by a sprained left ankle, Harrington charged straight into contention for his biggest payday in more than three years.
With a magnificent seven birdies on his card, the Dubliner led his closest challenger, US Masters hero Bubba Watson, by two strokes going into today's final round at Park Royal.
US Open winner Webb Simpson was three off the pace after his 69, while Keegan Bradley spoiled his chances of holding onto the Grand Slam title with a hit-and-miss one-over-par 72 at Park Royal.
A bumper $600,000 (€462,302) first prize awaits today's winner and should Harrington complete a morale-boosting first victory since the 2010 Iskandar-Johor Open in Malaysia, he'll pocket his biggest cheque since finishing tied second at the Bridgestone World Golf Championship in August 2009.
The 41-year-old Dubliner played sublimely from tee to green for much of this season and he's one of only 12 players who made the cut in all four Major Championships in 2012.
Harrington simply didn't putt well enough to force his way back into the winner's circle and admits he was frustrated to miss one or two early on yesterday -- a three-putt from 15 feet for bogey at the third, for example, negated a sweet birdie four at the third.
Yet after three tap-in birdies at six, seven and 10, he landed a couple of bombs at 14 and 15 before failing to get up-and-down for par from 15 yards short of the green at the intimidating par-three 16th, where the green lies on an exposed shelf over the ocean.
Harrington's confidence in his short game was bolstered at 17, however, when he made birdie four out of a greenside bunker and he was looking forward to another convivial day on the golf course this afternoon.
"Every day I play, I make an effort to talk to my playing partners and today everyone was up for a chat, so it was better than ever," he smiled. "I play better when the whole group enjoys it so, if the guys have any sense, they shouldn't talk to me in the second round."
Harrington has lost in play-offs on his two previous visits to this event. Yet victory today would be the perfect boost for the Dubliner as he tries to force his way back into the world's top-50 down his season-ending stretch through Singapore (November 8-11) and Hong Kong (Nov 15-18) to the Dubai World Championship (Nov 22-25).
Bradley got the chance to play in Bermuda because PGA Champion Rory McIlroy is defending at Lake Malaren this week at the BMW Shanghai Masters. Having secured his lead in the US Money List, McIlroy's priority right now is to fend off Justin Rose and Co at the top of Europe's Order of Merit and emulate Luke Donald's feat last year of topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
McIlroy is some €437,000 ahead of Rose in the Race To Dubai, with South Africa's Branden Grace €350,000 further behind. Both could leapfrog him on Sunday with nearly €890,000 to be banked by the winner of BMW Masters, which begins at Lake Malaren tomorrow.
"I've finished second in the Race to Dubai two of the last three years so it would be good to knock that off and try to do what Luke did," said World No 1 McIlroy, who'll not want to lose ground in Shanghai as he skips next week's WGC HSBC Champions.
McIlroy must be at his best this week if he's to emulate last year's Shanghai Masters success. With Donald, the in-form Rose and Lee Westwood playing, four of the world's top five figure in the 78-man field, as well as 11 of the winning Ryder Cup team.