WHERE or when will this Padraig Harrington slump bottom out?
On a day when Welsh journeyman professional Jamie Donaldson ripped Luxehills Country Club apart with a second-round 61, Harrington was sent packing after a shamblolic 73.
Ireland's three-time Major champion missed the lowest cut on the European Tour since the 2003 Canaries Open by five strokes.
After playing 36 holes at this veritable birdie-fest in level par, Harrington is expected to drop out of the world's top 40 for the first time since April 2000 when the new rankings are unveiled on Monday.
And, unless he experiences a marked improvement in form over the coming weeks, the Dubliner's place in the game's elite top 50 will come under serious risk.
It's all a far cry from August 2008, when Harrington soared to a career-high third place in the world on the back of his third Major title in 13 months.
This is Harrington's 20th missed cut in world-ranking events since completing sensational back-to-back victories at the British Open at Royal Birkdale and the US PGA at Oakland Hills the following month.
In that time, he has also racked up 20 top-10 finishes -- including a solitary win in last October's Iskandar Johor Open in Malaysia -- but the Irishman has surrendered his trademark consistency.
Failing to make the weekend at last month's US Masters was understandable after Harrington pulled a neck muscle as he warmed up for the first round on Thursday morning.
Admitting he'd putted "like a Womble" at Augusta, Harrington was honest enough to wonder if it had all been due to his seized neck muscle.
Though he took just 29 putts on both days in Chengdu, doubts still hover over the Irishman's ability to get himself out of trouble with his once-formidable putter ... and Harrington needed to lean on it in China as he went walkabout from tee to green.
Harrington still had a glimmer of hope of making the weekend when he hit a lovely wedge shot out of the left rough to five feet at 14 and planted the birdie putt to go two-under for his round and three-under for the tournament.
"Come on," urged a gruff Irish voice in the gallery as Harrington walked off that green.
Yet any chance of survival was snuffed out at the next when he carved his tee shot way right of the fairway and out of bounds, leading to a double-bogey six.
To his credit, Harrington battled on, making bogey six at the 569-yard 16th after his all-out attempt to make the green in two with a fairway metal fell short and into the hazard.
He's still blessed with a fighter's instincts, yet his game has become too erratic and his form too unpredictable for Harrington to punch at Major championship weight.
In truth, Harrington hasn't truly contended at this exalted level since August 2009, when on consecutive Sundays he was blown out of contention -- in his head-to-head with Tiger Woods at Firestone by a triple-bogey eight at 16 and then ran into a brick wall with a quintuple-bogey eight at the eighth in the final round of the following week's US PGA.
The magic spell which surrounded Harrington at Carnoustie, Oakland Hills and Royal Birkdale seemed to break that afternoon at Hazeltine.
Significantly, Harrington went into the Volvo China Open probably as relaxed as he ever has been at a tournament after combining the event with a family holiday, visiting the Terracotta Army, the Great Wall, Beijing's Tiananmen Square and Chengdu's most famous residents, the pandas.
Plainly, it didn't work, and those who have loudly urged Harrington simply to ease up on himself on the golf course now have their answer. The Dubliner really does need to be under the cosh to perform at his best.
At least Harrington will look forward to his return to the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, where he finished tied seventh behind the mercurial Rory McIlroy last May.
Apart from the woes of Harrington and his fellow Dubliner Paul McGinley, who also finished tied-113th on level par after a dispiriting 76, it was quite a good day for the Irish in Chengdu.
Peter Lawrie went into the weekend just one shot behind Donaldson on 12-under after posting eight birdies in a superlative second-round 64. The Dubliner joked that he really needs to get the skates on if he's to be able to take time off after his wife Philippa gives birth to their fourth child early next month.
Among those tied second with Lawrie was Gareth Maybin, who felt a change of driver enabled him to play significantly better yesterday, even if his 67 was two strokes shy of Thursday's opening 65.
Damian McGrane, winner of the China Open in 2008, posted a 68, his first bogey-free round since last October's Valderrama Masters, as he climbed to a share of 47th place on six-under with Michael Hoey (70).
Shane Lowry can look forward to what he described as his "first weekend's work" since returning from a broken wrist last month after fighting back with three birdies in the final 10 holes of his second-round 70 to make the cut on the mark.
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