The 38-year-old Dubliner fired a three under par 69 to lurk just two strokes behind clubhouse leader Kevin Stadler, who held a one stroke lead over fellow Americans Vaughan Taylor, James Driscoll and Kevin Sutherland.
But a bogey at the last, some tentative tee shots and a less than immaculate wedge game left Ireland’s triple major winner happier with his score than the quality of his game as the Masters looms large.
“I am pleased enough with the score but I didn’t hit it very well on the range before I went out,” Harrington said. “I was starting my downswing a bit quick so I have got to go and hit a few shots now and make sure that I don’t panic.”
Confessing that there are no major mysteries to solve in his game, he added: “I hit a lot of reasonable shots that ran through the green because I just didn’t strike them well enough. But you have got to play well out there and I wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t good preparation for the Masters. It is all about the Shell Houston Open now and Augusta can wait three more days.”
Despite his lack of confidence, Harrington made excellent par saves from around six feet at the third and seventh and picked up birdies at the par-five fourth and eighth holes with putts of seven and five feet respectively to turn in two under par.
He bogeyed the 10th when he bunkered a 100-yard wedge and missed from seven feet. But he also avoided a three-putt bogey by holing a seven foot return putt at the 11th and suddenly moved into contention by reeling off a hat-trick of birdies from the 14th before dropping a shot at the difficult 18th, where he bunkered his tee shot and his approach and missed a 10 footer for par.
“I had some chances early on and three wedge shots on 10, 12 and 13 and played them in one over par,” said Harrington, who had never shot lower than 71 in the opening round in his four previous appearances at Redstone Golf Club.
“So I am not feeling too good about my game. I holed a 30 footer on 14 and hit the flag on 15 with my pitch and hit it close on 16. So I went from nowhere to a good round.”
Of course, Harrington is in Houston to win but the real objective is to make sure his game is firing on all cylinders come Sunday night.
“I was lacking a bit of confidence at times and bailed out there at the 18th,” he said of his bunkered tee shot at the last, where he was determined to avoid the lake on the left and predictably went right. “I could be a little better than I was but hopefully over the next 45 holes we will build up to that.
“You don’t ever want to give up the chance to win a tournament and Augusta will start whenever I am out of contention this week. I wasn’t on top of my game today but hopefully I will gradually get better and feel comfortable next Monday.”
Late starter Rory McIlroy began on the back nine and was one over par through the turn after sandwiching a birdie at the 13th between bogeys at the 12th and 14th.
However, defending champion Paul Casey was forced to withdraw before the start with a shoulder injury, bringing back memories of the rib injury that put him out of the game for the latter half of last season.
“It’s completely separate from what I had before,” Casey said before leaving Houston. “I’m not overly worried but the left shoulder and the first rib on the left side aren’t moving correctly and the muscles around it have locked up. I’m not able to get the club into position to swing it properly.”