Monday 22 January 2018

Irish Open: Harrington sitting pretty after riding out the storm

A notorious destroyer of promising scorecards brought unexpected joy to Padraig Harrington in the third round of the Irish Open at Royal Portrush yesterday. With a birdie on Calamity Corner, he went on to complete a level-par 72 to be 10-under-par overall and two strokes behind the surprise leader, Jamie Donaldson of Wales.

Harrington was two-over for his round and struggling to make anything happen when he faced the 201-yard 14th, one of golf's most fearsome par-threes. There, a gently cut three-iron sent the ball 10 feet left of the pin, from where he sank the putt with the sort of assurance which has characterised his recent revival.

Though sharing third place, the extent to which the Dubliner is the player to beat can be gauged from the fact that the two challengers ahead of him have no more than one European win between them from 646 tournaments. That was Anthony Wall's Alfred Dunhill Championship of 12 years ago.

Conceived on a grand scale, the Dunluce Links revealed much of its renowned qualities in high winds and dipping temperatures. "I hit a nice approach at the first and came up 45 yards short of the flag," said Harrington. "Then at the second, it was 25 yards short. So I kind of wondered what was happening."

What happened was a predicted change of wind, now coming from the south-west, which meant that the long ninth and 10th holes were no longer the mid-round gifts they had been on the opening two days. And the 581-yard 17th became positively fearsome, to the extent that drives from even the longer hitters often failed to reach the short grass, 250 yards away.

In these circumstances, a seriously productive touch with the blade was the route to a scoring dividend. And Welshman Donaldson showed the way, when covering the five-hole stretch from the second to the sixth in four-under-par. In the process, a 10-footer found the target for an eagle at the long second; then came a 20-footer for par on the fourth; a 10-footer for birdie on the fifth; and a 25-footer for another birdie at the next.

In fact the 36-year-old may feel a sense of destiny this weekend, given his hole-in-one on the short sixth on Thursday. Addressing his failure to win, he was honest enough to admit: "There's no easy way for me to say I haven't been good enough. I've had a few chances but at the end of the day I haven't been able to stand on the last green, holding the trophy."

On the other hand Harrington, who plays today with England's Mark Foster, has done it at the highest level -- three times. "I'll be doing my thing and hoping my name on the leaderboard brings pressure to bear," he said. "I'll have a very nice sleep tonight. There's no doubt about it. And I won't be tired tomorrow, so we'll see what happens."

With an enhanced premium on finding often elusive fairways, the hidden subtleties and tricky slopes of beautifully crafted greens presented a test worthy of the event. And by way of embellishing the sense of occasion, it was watched by a record attendance of 30,721, bringing the cumulative figure to 81,918 for the three competitive days so far. And this in playing conditions which were frequently among the most hostile I have witnessed.

Though the main focus centred on Harrington, additional optimism from a home perspective was raised by the 11 Irish challengers who got through the cut of two-under-par on Friday evening. For the most part, however, their challenges faded in the course of an absorbing day.

A notable exception, however, was Rory McIlroy, who appears to be gradually embracing the special challenge of links golf, which makes different demands than his preferred, high-ball game. "I feel I played some really good golf out there," he said with some justification after a solidly crafted 71, which left him six-under-par for the championship.

Michael Hoey was bitterly disappointed, however, to be a stroke further back after a 74 which he finished with four successive fives -- bogey, bogey, par, bogey. But Graeme McDowell fought the good fight, even if he had to birdie the long 17th to get in with a 73. "I wanted to play my way back into the tournament, but the conditions didn't really allow me to do so," he said ruefully. "We played 14 holes in conditions as tough as anything I've experienced here."

After making his first cut this year, Darren Clarke looked set for serious progress with a birdie-eagle start. But he was eventually made to suffer the indignity of a double-bogey on the 17th, where he failed to reach the fairway with a pulled drive of 235 yards into serious rough.

It seemed especially penal against a background of ball-striking reminiscent of his majestic Open performance last July. Yet the look of resignation on his face spoke volumes about his respect for a links which, on this occasion, had delivered a seriously searching test.

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