'I couldn't have asked for more' - Pádraig Harrington takes a one-stroke lead on opening day of Irish Open at Lahinch
A day after telling punters they would be better off backing him for the British Open Championship rather than this week, Pádraig Harrington carded his lowest round in the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Lahinch.
Making his 24th consecutive appearance in the event, Harrington recorded eight birdies and a solitary bogey to establish a new course record of 63 and enjoy a two-shot lead at the top of a crowded leaderboard.
South African Zander Lombard birdied four of the last five to claim second place, while England’s Eddie Pepperell marked his return from a seven-week injury lay-off with a 65 to share third with compatriots Lee Slattery and Chris Paisley, Thorbjorn Olesen, Wade Ormsby, Mike Lorenzo-Vera and Hyowon Park, with Shane Lowry, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and Ian Poulter part of a large group on four under.
A broken wrist at the end of last year kept Harrington out of action until March and the three-time major champion started the week ranked 291st in the world after missing the cut in three of his last four events.
"You couldn't have asked for more. The crowds were buzz out there, the weather was great. Obviously getting out there and shooting a low one, it seemed easy enough to do it. But the conditions were tough enough today there was a lot of crosswinds," said the Dubliner.
"We were just in that mindset, myself and Poulter were strolling around having a chat most of the day, we were quite relaxed about it.
"I got a few breaks out there, there's no doubt about it but 63 was a reasonably easy return at the end of the day," Harrington said afterwards.
He added: "Every week feels like my first week out, trying to find my game, but links golf suits me because you can really work your way around," said the 47-year-old Ryder Cup captain, who shot rounds of 68-78 last year at Ballyliffin to miss the cut.
"I had neutral expectations. I just wanted to take stock of my game and did not expect a 63 but it was a bit of a stroll in the park. I've worked a lot harder to shoot 73, that's for sure.
"It was buzzing out there and it would only be bettered if I did it on Sunday, but if you don't do something on Thursday you won't be around for Sunday anyway. All this does is create a number of scenarios where I can go on and win this tournament."
Lorenzo-Vera had earlier shrugged off the embarrassment of suffering a dreaded shank to post a five-under-par 65 as he chases a first European Tour title in the £5.5million event.
"I am a little bit ashamed of this one but I shanked one on 11, the par 3, like proper shank into huge rough," Lorenzo-Vera admitted. "I didn't shank a golf shot for five or six years in a tournament, so that was a bit strange.
"After those kinds of shots you laugh, and I was just trying to make a good bogey there, hit it to around 15 metres and got the bonus to hole the putt.
"I just went to the next tee with a big smile and bombed one down the middle and birdied the next two holes, so that was a big turning point."
Slattery has missed the cut in 10 of his 13 European Tour events this season, including the last six in succession.
But he raced to the turn in 30 thanks to four birdies in a row from the sixth, and then bounced back from a bogey on the 10th with further gains on the 13th and 16th.
"I'm in a good position in the sense that I've not played particularly great so far this year, and I've also not played as many tournaments as I would usually," Slattery said.
"I've not played much golf because I've not played the weekend that much so I feel fairly fresh.
"But I've just been very unfortunate, missing a lot of cuts by a shot. There has to be a time in the season where you turn it around, especially as hard as I work."
Meanwhile, Lowry is exactly where he wants to be after carding an opening round 66.
Despite a sluggish start with a bogey on the third, the Offalyman bounced back in style to hit five birdies thereafter.
The first came on the par three fifth before he entered the red with another on nine to card a front nine 34.
Lowry was flawless on the back nine with birdies coming on 12, 14 and 18.
"I'm delighted with that today," said Lowry.
"This morning I was nervous so to shoot 66 today the way I did I'm hoping tomorrow will be even better and I can give the big crowds something to cheer about."
Last year's Irish Amateur Open champion Robin Dawson scored a round of 68 to leave himself two under on Day One.
HOW THE IRISH FARED ON DAY ONE
-7 Pádraig Harrington (F 63)
-4 Shane Lowry (F 66)
-4 Cormac Sharvin (F 66)
-2 Robin Dawson (F 68)
Level Séamus Power (F 70)
Level Paul McBride (F 70)
Level Brian Casey (F 70)
+1 Conor O’Rourke (F 71)
+1 Michael McGeady (F 71)
+1 Darren Clarke (F 71)
+1 Paul Dunne (F 71)
+2 Graeme McDowell (F 72)
+2 Gavin Moynihan (F 72)