Superb Harrington flies to the top of the Irish Open leaderboard

Padraig Harrington of Ireland after finishing his round -6 on the 18th. Pictures: INPHO/Oisin Keniry

Padraig Harrington shot a superb opening day seven-under 63 to shoot to the summit of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open leaderboard on Thursday evening and if it looked easy then it was.

“It was a stroll-in-the-park 63,” said the three-time major champion after the best round of a brilliant day's scoring in Lahinch. “I couldn’t have asked for more in shooting a low one. It seemed easy. I got a few breaks.

“Birdie on eight: It’s blind up there and the crowds couldn’t see it. I had to a show a little bit of emotion as there was no-one else there but the two guys (in the same group). They both followed me in which was nice.”

It was all the more extraordinary a display given the context.

Harrington had spoken at length just yesterday about the struggle it has been in recovering from a wrist injury he suffered at home late last year. He all but ruled out his chances of success here on the Old Course.

His round here included eight birdies. The only blemish was a bogey at the par-three eleventh but it didn't stop him claiming a one-stroke lead from South Africa's Zander Lombard who finished birdie-birdie-birdie at the back end of a sunkissed day in West Clare.

“My expectations were neutral,” he said. “I wanted to see where my game was at. I was in a nice place. I’d be happy if I played like that every day. It can only be bettered if I did it on Sunday. But you need a good Thursday to be there on Sunday.

Momentum is on my side. I would have played a lot harder to shoot 73 in the past. At the 2nd, I hit a 7-iron 220 yards from light rough to 12 feet for a birdie. That takes a lot of luck and gave me a bit of momentum.

It's 12 years since Harrington won his one and only Irish Open, at Adare. A repeat here would be a sensation given his age, form and recent injury, though it is early yet to be contemplating the sight of the current Ryder Cup captain lifting the trophy on Sunday evening.

Superb Harrington flies to the top of the Irish Open leaderboard

There were low-scores galore on the opening day with over sixty of the 156-man field under par shortly after tea-time and 30 within four strokes of Harrington at the lead. Despite that, the Dubliner claimed that 14-under would give him a good shout of winning outright.

We'll see.

“I don’t need to shoot four 63s to win now,” he declared after a round that obviously raises the expectation levels. “I’ve not played that many Sundays. I was in a good place. Here is a good place. I don’t have to play that well again to win.

“If nothing good happens the next three days, I know I’m on the right track. It was one of the most enjoyable rounds of my career, on a perfect links. Someone said I was 100/1, they’re pretty good odds. Only a fool would discount me on a links.”

Plenty of others will relish their chances too.

The par-70 Lahinch course basked under a blazing blue sky and the wind was light by Atlantic Coast standards, moreso in the morning when Shane Lowry established the 'home' challenge with a very good 66 to sit four-under.

“I don't feel like I drove the ball as well as I should have or could have,” said Lowry. “I hit it close a couple of times out of the rough, which helps. It's not easy out there. I know it's not that windy but it's tricky.”

Graeme McDowell, who shot a two-over 72 described the course as a “tricky little puzzle” while Cormac Sharvin, the Challenge Tour player from Co. Down, predicted that the vagaries of the wind will make for four very different tests this week.

Graeme McDowell plays from the rough on the 12th. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Graeme McDowell plays from the rough on the 12th. Picture: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

There is also some rain forecast for Saturday.

Rory McIlroy's absence, after four years hosting the event, was a blow to the organisers but one that was absorbed a long time ago and the presence of Harrington, Lowry and more at the sharp end will mitigate against it if they can continue in this vein.

The Irish Open has struggled to hold onto the spotlight for all four days at times in recent years due to leaderboards lacking home interest or other big-name talents but the early indications are that 2019 will not fall into that category.

A number of Ryder Cup players are poised on the shoulder of Harrington, among them Thorbjorn Olesen, Martin Kaymer, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Fleetwood whose play deserved a lot better than a three-under 67.

Same again tomorrow, please.

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