IF Padraig Harrington's year got off to a false start in Abu Dhabi last week, the Dubliner got caught in the traps at the Volvo Golf Champions yesterday.
A first-round 70 at the Royal Golf Club of Bahrain left him six off the pace set by a course-record 64 from Sweden's Johann Edfors.
Controversially disqualified in Abu Dhabi after an opening 65, Harrington found himself being extra careful as to how he marked and replaced his ball a couple of times yesterday.
However, he was knocked out of kilter on several occasions by a local rule, which allows the 100 competitors in the field to break with usual practice in golf and ground their clubs in bunkers.
In fact, in his rules notice issued before the tournament, chief referee Andy McFee categorically stated: "There are no bunkers on this course. There are only waste areas."
Sounds pretty straightforward, but when players spend their entire career being careful not to ground the club or take full-blown practice swings in sand, it's very difficult and disconcerting to break that habit -- especially when some of the 'traps' look exactly like bunkers and have rakes lying beside them.
Harrington didn't rack up any penalties yesterday, but his discomfort playing out of the sand certainly didn't help on a blustery day in which he struggled generally for focus and composure.
"When I was marking my ball on the greens I thought a couple of times about what happened last week in Abu Dhabi," the 39-year-old admitted. "But the biggest distraction out there was being able to ground my club in a bunker.
"It completely upset my routine for bunker shots. You don't know what to do. You're standing there and it's all new and confusing. Three times I hit fat shots out of bunkers. There's no advantage to being allowed ground your club. Once I did ground it and hit it terribly fat and twice I didn't ground it and hit those shots fat as well."
The rule in operation in Bahrain this week is the polar opposite of that at Whistling Straits last August, when unfortunate American Dustin Johnson missed out on a place in the play-off for the US PGA when he was penalised two strokes for grounding his club in a 'bunker' at 18.
Johnson mistook a tiny sliver of sand heavily trampled by spectators as a waste area after failing to read local rules which declared every patch of sand on the course as a bunker.
The principle behind that determination by the US PGA last August and this week's in Bahrain is simple. While every grain of sand was imported into Whistling Straits by truck, the white stuff occurs naturally in the Bahraini desert.
Not that Harrington was making excuses for an off-colour performance. "I had a bad day. Mentally I was struggling," said the Dubliner.
Asked if this might have been a consequence of the plethora of swing changes he started working on in his winter break, Harrington went on: "I could blame that, but no. I'm just going to write this one off. Tomorrow if I have another one of those days, I'll have to look at it.
"Today I wasn't confident and just struggled. The brain was very active instead of being nice and quiet and to grind out a 70 in those circumstances was very good."
Edfors (35) is one of several European Tour players who got married over the mid-winter break.
That marriage agrees with Edfors was plain as he took full advantage of perfect conditions before lunch to equal his lowest previous round against par, a 63 he shot on his way to victory at the Scottish Open in 2006, the most recent of his three wins on Tour.
As the wind whipped up in the afternoon, transforming the 7,224-yard course into a real championship challenge, Harrington's Italian playing companion Francesco Molinari purred around in 66, good enough for a share of second place with Pablo Larrazabal of Spain, another Swede Peter Hanson and England's Graeme Storm.
Molinari's older brother Edoardo posted a 68 in the group behind, Yet Francesco showed such class in tricky conditions yesterday, it would not be surprising to see him pull off a performance in Bahrain to rival that of Martin Kaymer in Abu Dhabi last week.
Volvo Tournament of Champions,
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