Padraig turns up heat in Sun City
LONG time, no see. Padraig Harrington, the swashbuckling golfer who swaggered to three Major championship victories in 13 months and then vanished, reappeared in all his pomp on the fairways at Sun City yesterday.
Harrington turned the clock back to the summer of 2008 during a majestic first-round six-under-par 66, which gave him a one-stroke lead over his Ryder Cup playing partner Ross Fisher at the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa.
Once he landed his first birdie of the tournament on the eighth hole, Harrington started playing and putting with certainty and confidence; qualities which all too often seemed to desert him over the past 27 months as he slipped out of the world's top-20.
Though sometimes fancifully described as 'Africa's Major', the Nedbank is a $5m end-of-season chance for 12 of the world's more distinguished golfers to top up their wheelbarrows before Christmas.
Yet the 7,800-yard golf course -- created by Gary Player at Sun City -- still represents a significant challenge and the quality of golf played by Harrington on it yesterday clearly indicated that the 39-year-old is still imbued with the class of a three-times Major champion.
It shone brilliantly on the testing final hole as Harrington hit the shot of the day, a beautiful 140-yard wedge from the left rough which soared over trees and a vast expanse of water as it zeroed in on the pin.
Wow! Man and boy, the crowd in the grandstands surrounding the final green leapt roaring to their feet as Harrington's ball landed and rolled just past the cup, leaving two-foot putt for his seventh birdie.
A memorable day had started on a rather subdued note. After hitting his opening tee-shot, a three-wood, into a deep fairway bunker, he made a nice par, setting the tone for his first seven holes.
Yet an invisible switch seemed to flick in the Dubliner's head as he produced a string of four successive birdies from eight through 11, hitting a series of raking putts which renewed Harrington's faith in his ability to read the greens.
Suddenly, all seemed well in his world and even the untimely intervention of an electrical storm, failed to halt Harrington's momentum.
After landing a sweet birdie at 14, Harrington had just hit a splendid approach shot to 12 feet at 15 when the sirens called the players off the course. Two hours later, he returned and polished off the birdie putt with aplomb to claim the tournament lead.
In this mood, it really didn't matter if Harrington missed seven of 14 fairways, especially since the rough at Sun City is not as daunting this year.
The only blot came at the par four-and-a-half 17th, where Harrington blocked his tee shot right after a short, sharp chop with the driver.
In his pursuit of added power and distance, Harrington sometimes swings this club with the ferocity of a mad-axeman -- and with predictably painful results. After taking two to get down from 15 feet for bogey, the Dubliner showed resilience of old as he bounced back with that sweet birdie at the last.
Fisher, who pipped Harrington at August's Irish Open, looms large in his mirrors here after a first-round 67 in which the Englishman played a beguiling mixture of power and precision golf until he pull-hooked his tee shot at 17 on his way to a slipshod double-bogey six.
World No 1 Lee Westwood also looked threatening as he rebounded from a dropped shot at six to post five birdies in a flawless 12-hole run to the finish and a round of 68. The only other player to break 70 was Miguel Angel Jimenez, who eased into the slipstream of his three Ryder Cup comrades with a 69.
Yet the race for the $1.25m first prize extends well beyond the top-four. Even Tim Clark, the man propping up the field after a one-over par 73, is capable of forcing his way back into contention.
Clark's fellow South Africans, Ernie Els, a three-times winner of this event, and Louis Oosthuizen, winner of last July's Open at St Andrews, played far more impressively from tee to green yesterday than their opening rounds of one-under-par 71 might suggest.
Harrington evaded the media who wanted to speak to him after his round and headed straight for the practice range in a bid to make the most of the fading light at Sun City.
One suspects he wanted to brush up on his driving but if Harrington can rely on his clubs and, especially, his putter to speak as eloquently for him over the next 54 holes, he'll go close to adding another tournament victory to the Johor Open title he won six weeks ago.
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