Wednesday 25 April 2018

Harrington in mix with a solid start

Pádraig Harrington lines up a putt during his first round at Riviera yesterday (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Pádraig Harrington lines up a putt during his first round at Riviera yesterday (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

William S Callahan

The luck of the Irish finally smiled on Pádraig Harrington after a tough opening period in his 2017 PGA Tour campaign.

Harrington shot an opening 67 for four-under par in the first round of the Genesis Open at Riviera CC to lie three shots behind clubhouse leader Sam Saunders, who shot a superb 64.

Equally important, the three-time Major champion got through 18 holes on a day when tournament officials were concerned about completing round one after fog delayed the start of play for an hour and 15 minutes in the morning.

Those players in the early wave of starters also took a degree of uncertainty out of the equation for today's scheduled second round.

The weather forecast for the Pacific Palisades area in which Riviera is situated is pretty awful, with high winds and rain almost inevitably destined to disrupt the tournament.

Gusts of up to 45mph and anything up to five inches of rain are in the weather mix for today, and if that forecast turns out as suggested, a Monday finish has to be a possibility.

Harrington, Dustin Johnson, and Phil Mickelson are among the competitors due for a late tee time, so they can sit back and see how events unfold.

It is possible they may not hit a shot today, but the comfort of filing a solid opening round was a bonus, particularly for Harrington.

The Dubliner had tests early in the week on the persistent neck injury which was affected his practice and performance since the start of the year.

Prior to starting out yesterday, he told his Facebook followers: "One of the hardest things with this injury is that I have no pain, just weakness.

"It's hard to give up the distance I have lost and the mental impact of it is tough to take."

Smile

How ironic that a professional sportsman would prefer to have some pain, but it is understandable, because the loss of power and distance in his shots has been a big concern for Harrington.

He came to Riviera on the back of three consecutive missed cuts but had plenty of reasons to smile as his round developed.

Harrington teed off from the first, and went through six holes at level-par before claiming his first birdie of the day, a three on the par-four seventh where he holed from 25 feet.

He turned in 34, one-under, and covered the homeward stretch in 33 blows, finishing in spectacular fashion with three successive birdies on holes 16 through 18.

Dustin Johnson and Web.Com Tour graduate JT Poston both shot 66. Harrington, Billy Hurley III, Phil Mickelson, and Pat Perez were all on 67, before Saunders, a grandson of the late, great Arnold Palmer, threw in his 64 for the clubhouse lead.

Johnson, who started at the 10th, had six birdies and just one bogey on his card.

"Overall it was a really good day. The good thing is we played early today. We got this round in, especially with the fog delay this morning.

"It's definitely nice having a later tee time tomorrow because I can get up and see how things are going. We'll know if we're going to play or not, where the other guys are going to have to be out early in the morning," said Johnson.

Among "those guys" on an early tee time today are Ireland's Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell.

They started over an hour later than planned yesterday, and today's uncertainty about the weather is an added challenge.

For Sam Saunders, this was a special performance. He had never previously played Riviera and is struggling to climb his way up the Tour rankings.

Exemption

He had to avail of a sponsor's exemption to get into the tournament because Arnold Palmer had won the tournament three times.

"It's early in the year. My grandfather used to say, 'Winning isn't everything, but wanting to is'," said Saunders.

"It was a really nice day out there. I gave myself a lot of good looks at birdie, and when I did miss, it was in the right spots, so a pretty low stress day."

Meanwhile, Phil Mickelson and reigning champion Bubba Watson, can join Palmer and Ben Hogan as the only players to win this tournament three times.

Mickelson, 46, and Watson, 38, have won the tournament twice - 'Lefty in 2008 and 2009, and Watson in 2014 and 2016.

Since this event began in 1926, only Ben Hogan (1942, '47, and '48) and Arnold Palmer (1963, '66, '67) have been three-time winners.

The overall record has defied generations of great golfers for over 60 years, and that testifies to the enduring legacy of quality which this tournament attracts each year.

Nobody, except MacDonald Smith, who won it four times between 1928 and 1934, and Lloyd Mangrum, whose quadruple wins came between 1949 and '56, has broken the treble barrier.

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Irish Independent

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