Thursday 23 November 2017

Signs of a Harrington recovery as Tiger finds going tough

Valhalla crowds flock to watch Woods defy back injury as Dubliner cards opening 73

Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington look on as they wait to putt on the 13th green during the first round of the USPGA Championship at Valhalla
Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington look on as they wait to putt on the 13th green during the first round of the USPGA Championship at Valhalla
Tiger Woods hits his approach shot on the ninth fairway during the first round of the USPGA Championship at Valhalla
Tiger Woods lines up his putt on the eighth green during the first round of the USPGA Championship at Valhalla
Tiger Woods takes drop after a wayward tee shot on the seventh hole during the first round of the USPGA at Valhalla

Karl MacGinty

IT'S six years since Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson were drawn together at the Majors, while Padraig Harrington can't remember when he last played with America's big two.

The clever money is on the 2004 Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills, when US captain Hal Sutton fielded his 'Dream Team' of Tiger and Phil in the opening match and Harrington teamed-up with Colin Montgomerie to make it a nightmare start for the home side.

It didn't seem to matter to the tens of thousands who crammed the fairway ropes at Valhalla early yesterday morning that Woods had only been a shadow of himself at the Majors since winning the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines.

Nor that Mickelson, his playing companion in the opening two rounds at that unforgettable championship, has been mired-down in the deepest form-slump of his career this year.


The air of expectancy on the 10th tee was palpable as the three legends were introduced.

Yet, after his remarkable recovery from the back injury which forced him to abandon the Bridgestone Invitational after eight holes last Sunday, there would be no fairytale return to peak form for Tiger at Valhalla, while Harrington's hopes of restating his Major Championship credentials after a six-year win famine in Europe and the United States were also dashed.

Yet reality bit down hard on these two champions. A sterile 74 left Woods flailing nine strokes off the scintillating pace set by revitalised Lee Westwood and American Kevin Chappell with six-under par 65s.

Harrington also was facing an uphill battle to make the halfway cut this afternoon after a two-over par 73 made all the more frustrating by the quality of golf he played.

At the end of the day, only Mickelson, who confessed to feeling "nervous" as he stumbled blindly through the first eight holes in two-over par, managed to raise a defiant fist at the leaders with a two-under par 69.

"My game has finally come together," he said. "The confidence just needs to slowly start coming with it. It's still on low because of the way I've played this year."

Woods, doubtful starter up until Wednesday afternoon, reported for duty on the practice range precisely an hour before his tee time, just as Harrington was doing the Toulouse- Lautrec impersonation.

The Dubliner has turned heads all week during his warm-up by dropping to his knees and hitting half a dozen drives, one after another, 270-plus yards, high and true – caddie Ronan Flood tees-up the ball each time and Harrington blazes away.

This unusual exercise was devised by the 42-year-old because, coach Pete Cowen explained, his legs were too active in the downswing. Playing off his knees lets him know what it feels like to make a full, uninhibited shoulder rotation through the swing.

Incidentally, Harrington's clubhead speed kneeling down is 110mph and 114mph standing up! Yet all eyes were on Woods at the practice ground yesterday morning, when, remarkably, there was no hint of stiffness from the injury which placed his participation in doubt up to the eve of this championship.

As Tiger swung smoothly and freely with every club from wedge up to driver and bent down with alacrity to tee-up ball after ball, one suspected he might do a roaring trade if he offered what he had for breakfast to those who endure chronic back pain.

He actually appeared to stripe the ball on the range but as every hacker knows, taking that onto the course is an entirely different matter. So it was with Woods yesterday as he gave the vast galleries following the marquee group ample evidence why US Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson should overlook him for a wild card.

Without doubt, Harrington was the most impressive of the three Major-winning musketeers over the first eight holes.

He holed from 13 feet for a lovely birdie at 12. Then, after dropping a shot out of the front bunker at the par three 14th, Harrington received his due reward for a gutsy shot right at the flag at 17, just one of several treacherous pins set to protect the course yesterday. With a little more confidence in his putter, Harrington could have been challenging for the lead at that point, though at one-under through the turn, he still was two better than Woods and Mickelson.

Hitting his tee shot into the water at the par five 18th, his ninth, appeared to spook the Dubliner, though he disagreed, saying: "It looked like I'd hit the fairway. It was meant to be a right to left wind and it looked like it was tight down the right all the time but at the end of the day it didn't bother me because at the end of the day I made five at the hole."

Instead, Harrington cursed his luck and finishing after dropping four shots in the next six holes. Though a fabulous 6-iron tee shot into eight, which went within a hair's breadth of a hole-in-one, left Harrington him a tap-in birdie and his up-and-down from a greenside bunker at nine was described as "miraculous" by Woods.

Yet Ireland's three-time Major Champion seethed with frustration after a two-over par 73 in which he played some lovely golf but made precious little headway.

The expectant multitudes who gathered around the 10th tee to watch Tiger and Phil (ok, and Padraig) were immediately introduced to the utterly capricious and unpredictable nature of golf. Harrington had the honour and received generous applause as he neatly bisected the fairway with his tee shot. Up next was Mickelson, who sliced his ball so badly left, every person in the small stand behind the tee exhaled loudly in unison, producing a collective 'oooooh'.

The left-hander's ball bounced on the cart path and over the seven-foot fence protecting a corporate hospitality area, coming to rest among a nest of port-a-loos.

Because a temporary obstruction, the corporate tent, blocked the line of sight from Mickelson's ball to the green, the Californian was granted free relief. Able to take two drops away from the security fence, he seized the opportunity to play a fabulous recovery from under overhanging branches to the heart of the fairway.

Such is golf that Tiger, whose opening tee shot strayed a mere fraction offline, could advance his ball 80 yards or so out of dense Kentucky Bluegrass.

Mickelson two-putted from 40 feet away in the fringe rough for his five at this hole. Woods was furious when his 21-footer for birdie stopped half-a-roll short. Then Harrington, after laying-up from mid-fairway and hitting a wedge to 13 feet, stood for an age over the putt which never threatened the cup.

After their tee shots, only a fool would have wagered on all three men making par at 10. Mickelson wasn't so lucky after pulling his tee shot left of the second green, his ball winding up in deep rough some 20 feet beneath the putting surface.

Though he produced a piece of sorcery, hitting a flop shot high enough to sail over the average suburban semi-detached, Mickelson missed the eight foot putt for par. He birdied the next but after bogeys at 15 and 17, appeared to be wallowing once again in the torpor which has seized him all season.

Yet Mickelson has class all the way to his fingertips and he showed it at last with a birdie four at 18 and three more in his final six holes. Thank heaven at least one of the megastars managed to shine at Valhalla.

Irish Independent

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