Wednesday 22 November 2017

Harrington steals thunder of Ulster stars

Padraig Harrington hits his second shot on the 17th hole. Photo: Getty Images
Padraig Harrington hits his second shot on the 17th hole. Photo: Getty Images

Karl MacGinty

IT felt like the first round of a British Open. Looked and sounded like one too as Northern Ireland gave the Irish Open a rip-roaring welcome back to Royal Portrush.

So it probably came as no surprise to see Padraig Harrington strut his stuff with almost the same assurance which earned him three Major titles, including those two Claret Jugs at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale.

On a day which began with a downpour, was interrupted by an electrical storm in early afternoon and finished in balmy, 72 degree sunlight, it is not stretching things too far to suggest that Harrington (40) stole the thunder of Ulster's three Major champions.

No question, the vast majority of the 23,283 spectators who flocked to this glorious stretch of the Causeway Coast yesterday (and who braved out the 95-minute weather interruption), wished to pay homage to Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke.


Yet Harrington was taken aback by the warmth of the reception he received on the Dunluce Links, where the loudest roar of the day probably rose in salute to the phenomenal pitch-in for birdie from deep rough 60 yards shy of the green at the par-four eighth hole.

Harrington landed six birdies in all during a first-round 67 which left him just two strokes shy of joint-leaders Gregory Bourdy of France and India's Jeev Milkha Singh. For the record, Singh led after round one of last year's Irish Open at Killarney.

Dubliner Harrington played yesterday with England's defending champion Simon Dyson, who also showed true links craft to post a 67, in the same three-ball as home-town hero McDowell.

Though the Portrush native started swimmingly in teeming rain early yesterday morning, purring to two-under par through his first five holes on the back nine, he came to grief at the par-four 17th, making double-bogey after his ball was lost in thick bushes to the rear of the green.

Ironically, this spot is the closest point on the Dunluce Course to the homely clubhouse of Rathmore, McDowell's golfing alma mater, which houses a veritable shrine to the 2010 US Open champion's stellar achievements in its lobby.

Needless to say, there was no shortage of volunteers in the hunt for the ball, which McDowell somehow had hit into oblivion with a lob-wedge from mid-fairway, 90 yards shy of the putting surface. "I got a bit of a jumper out of the wet fairway," he'd explain later.

Though ultimately fruitless, the search for McDowell's ball was so enthusiastic, the offending hedge was almost destroyed. It's to his credit that the 32-year-old refused to let his opening round go the same way as he posted a fighting one-under-par 71.

This was matched by Clarke in the afternoon, the British Open champion recovering from a dispiriting sequence of slipshod bogeys on six, seven and eight shortly before the weather break to post three birdies on an uplifting back nine.

Though McIlroy was the best placed of Northern Ireland's Major-winning musketeers on two-under, the 23-year-old Holywood star was by far the most frustrated after two three-putt bogeys during an infuriating 5-5-5 finish to his opening 70.

"It wasn't a great way to finish, to be honest," he shrugged. "I felt like I played pretty good golf all day and it would have been nice after birdying 14 (to go four-under) to pick up a shot or two on the way in -- so to drop a couple was pretty disappointing.

"But I'm out early in the morning and, hopefully, I can get the shots back pretty quickly," added McIlroy, who described the support he received from the crowd as "phenomenal".

Yet McIlroy admitted he'd struggled to come to grips with the slower pace of the rain-doused greens when play resumed after the weather delay. Frankly, that sounded a tad feeble from a player who set a sensational course-record 61 at Royal Portrush at age 16.

In fairness, the golf course certainly was 'Rory-proofed' in the wake of that stunning effort during qualifying for the 2005 North of Ireland Championship and, at 7,143 yards, is a much tougher prospect these days.

Yet the Dunluce was set up yesterday with high winds in mind and when they failed to materialise in the morning, Europe's professionals took full advantage, embarking on a veritable birdie spree.

So even though McIlroy gave several glimpses of his genius yesterday, including a glorious tee-shot into a couple of feet at Calamity Corner, they were too fleeting to suggest he's fully regained his confidence following a recent form slump.

Despite missing his fourth cut in five events at the recent US Open, one has no doubt that McIlroy will make it through to the weekend in Portrush -- in fact, there's still plenty of time for him to find that old Quail Hollow or Congressional sparkle.

Prominent among those tied on two-under with the 2011 US Open champion is near-namesake Dermot McElroy, who at age 19 is the youngest player in the tournament.

McElroy certainly thrilled family, neighbours and friends who had travelled from Ballymena in their droves to watch him yesterday as he played his opening 17 holes in four-under before a double dose of bunker trouble at 18 saw him finish with a double-bogey six.

The highlight for McElroy was a sweet eagle three at nine, where his six-iron approach to a nice little kick off a bank and rolled to three feet. It's typical of this gifted young player that he would head straight for the range to work on his driving!

Paul McGinley also endured a frustrating finish to an otherwise satisfying 69.

The Ryder Cup hero (45) cited fatigue after an action-packed week in Munich, a fruitless visit to the British Open qualifier at Sunningdale on Monday and a taxing eight hours between the start and finish of his round yesterday for the three-putt bogey he made from 30 feet at the last.

Harrington also three-putted for par at his final hole, the long ninth, but any frustration he had was easily cancelled out by a glittering performance with his driver and his irons.

The Dubliner's delight with the atmosphere on an unforgettable day at Portrush also clearly showed as he said: "Obviously, you expect good support in Ireland but this is Graeme's back-yard. Frankly, I was taken aback by the reception I received out there today."

The Irish Open,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 10.0, RTE 2, 2.25

Irish Independent

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