PADRAIG Harrington delighted the home crowds at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open with his lowest-ever round in his home national open, a sizzling 63 in the Lahinch sunshine moving the 2020 Ryder Cup Captain one shot clear.
It was a spectacular start to the second Rolex Series event of 2019, with Shane Lowry ramping up the Irish atmosphere early in the day by recovering from an early bogey to move right into contention with a four-under 66.
A pair of former World No 1s in Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, as well as Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter, all joined Lowry on four-under while reigning Italian Open champion Thorbjørn Olesen was one of seven players in a share of third on five-under.
But the day belonged to three-time Major winner Harrington – a former winner of the Irish Open back in 2007 at Adare, as a run of five birdies in six holes around the turn propelled him to a seven under round.
That gave Harrington a one-stroke advantage over South Africa’s Zander Lombard, who birdied the final three holes late in the day for a six-under 64.
Harrington, who claimed the Irish Amateur Closed Championship at Lahinch back in 1995, said: “I had neutral expectations. At least that’s what I was going for.”
The winner of back-to-back Open Championships at Carnoustie and Royal Birkdale in 2007 and 2008 added: “I’ve been playing all year trying to find my game. I’ve been struggling coming back after my wrist injury.
“You know, this week, I just decided I’d go and play and try and get stock on my game. That’s kind of been the feedback I’ve been getting from my team around me. Let’s go out and play and see where we’re at.”
Europe’ss 2020 Ryder Cup captain said: “I didn’t expect 63 out of it. I was expecting a few weeks to get my head in the game, and we could then get our bearings.
“But you know, it just goes to show, when your head is in the right place, especially on a links golf course because you can work your way around the links. I did a really good job of it today.
“Out there, I was in a good place, my head was in a good place and good things were happening.
“I hit lots of nice shots. I know I don’t have to play as well as that for the next three days. It would be nice if I did, but we’ll just go out there and try and do more of the same,” said Harrington, who also claimed the 2008 PGA Championship at Oakland Hills – less than a month after successfully defending the Claret Jug in Southport.
Padraig added: “Whenever I step on a links golf course, I am going to be good value, and going forward, only a fool would discount me on a links course.”
Zander Lombard is one player who has every reason to be relishing the trip to Royal Portrush after next week’s Scottish Open, having lost the 2014 Amateur Championshp final on the Dunluce links.
He was beaten 2&1 by Bradley Neil, who is playing on the European Challenge Tour, while the South African has a full European Tour card after winning the Qualifying School at Lumine, in November.
Lombard said: “I think it was pretty solid. I managed to make a few good up-and-downs to keep the momentum on the right side. That’s so important in links golf, just to keep going and fix your bad shots.”
The 24-year-old qualified for the 148th Open Championship winning the 2018 Sunshine Tour Order of Merit.
Lombard added: “For me, it was definitely two good up-and-downs on four and five to just set the theme for the round. I was just solid all the way in.
“I really did enjoy the quirky holes. I think it’s not too ridiculous, but it’s to a point where it makes you think. It’s something we don’t play every day, so something different. It’s always fun and new is good in golf, especially.”
Denmark’s Thorbjørn Olesen, who made his Ryder Cup debut at Le Paris National in September, was also pleased with an upturn in form.
Olesen said: “My putting was really good. I got in trouble there a couple of times and holed two really, really good par saves. That was key. And then coming in, I hit a few good shots and holed the putts.
“I’ve always loved coming to Ireland. I played well here a few times, but I think links golf, I just embrace it and love it, and that helps. Sometimes it can be pretty tricky. It’s always been a type of golf that I really, really enjoy.”
Poulter, who was beaten by Harrington at Birkdale 11 years ago, said: “I feel very happy finishing with three birdies. It’s always nice when you do that. I was kind of hanging around on one-under par for a long time.
“I was hitting decent shots. Hitting a few decent putts. Nothing really happening apart from just some good, solid golf. To close out with three birdies like that is always nice. Dinner is going to taste a bit better tonight.”
The Woburn prof said: “To be honest it was a very relaxed round of golf. Seeing as I’ve only played two tournament rounds in the last five weeks, which is not a lot, I did everything well.
“Drove it well. I hit my irons well. I gave myself plenty of chances. It was just one of those rounds where you have to be patient and I was patient, and obviously the rewards were at the end.”
If Harrington cannot go on to win in front of the huge Irish gallery on Sundahy afternoon, without Rory McIlroy in the field, there could be no more popular home-grown winner than Shane Lowry, who captured the Irish Open title as an amateur in 2009, at Baltray.
Lowry said: “I don’t think I had my best stuff out there today, but I got it around. It’s nice to get off to a good start. There’s been a certain few weeks over the last while, I’ve struggled on Thursday.
“To shoot a good score the first day, hopefully I can kick on from here now.
“There were huge crowds for how early we were teeing off and I think tomorrow is going to be mad out there. But hopefully I can give them something to cheer for at the weekend.”