Retief Goosen and Padraig Harrington, first and second on the European Order of Merit for the past two seasons, share the lead after the opening round of the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Hamburg.
While Tiger Woods, chasing a third successive victory in the event and being paid a reported two million dollars to appear, began with a bogey-fr2ee 69, Goosen and Harrington kicked off with 65s.
Harrington was paired with Woods and although the world number one watched a wonderful putting display, the Dubliner afterwards admitted it had nothing to do with his ability to read greens.
“It got to the stage that I didn’t even bother reading them,” said Harrington.
“It didn’t make a huge difference whether I read them well or read them badly, hit them well or hit them badly. They were still going to go in. Golf’s a strange game.”
Woods commented: “Paddy putted beautifully. He made two long bombs and everything else he needed to make.”
Harrington achieved his score despite ‘really struggling off the tee big-time,’ adding: “I hardly hit a fairway and my confidence was very low, but I played to my strengths. I did all the work with the wedges and putter.”
The bizarre thing about his performance was that it came only four days after he could not sink a thing for love nor money in the final round of the Benson and Hedges International Open on the far superior greens of The Belfry.
Harrington ended up with the 19th runners-up finish of his career there, but now has his sights firmly set again on his eighth win.
His last success came when he beat Woods to the million-dollar top cheque at the Target World Challenge in California in December and Woods has not been blind to the dramatic improvement in the Irishman’s game over the last couple of seasons.
“I think he’s more consistent than he used to be,” he stated. “His bad shots aren’t as bad as they used to be. He’s made a good job of that.”
With a swirling wind and greens that were attacked over the winter by a disease known as Fusarium patch, Woods said he would have been content with anything under par. Three under therefore meant a perfectly satisfactory start to his hat-trick bid.
Goosen raced to the turn in 31, then added further birdies at the 12th and 15th before scrambling a closing par. He hooked his drive into something of a bog and felt lucky to find it, but hit a seven-iron just short of the green and chipped to three feet.
Having become a father for the first time in March, the South African has played only five Order of Merit events so far, but he said: “There are a lot of big money events to come and I definitely want to give myself a chance of winning it again.
“You always want to try and defend any title and the Order of Merit is the toughest one.”
Darren Clarke was very content too after tucking in just two shots behind Harrington and Goosen after a 67, alongside Ireland’s Peter Lawrie who lost out in a play-off for the Spanish Open three weeks ago.
Clarke received a putting lesson on the eve of the event from stablemate Lee Westwood, whose own troubles continued with a four over 76 on the course where he won in 1998 and 2000.
It paid off for the Ulsterman with five birdies in his last seven holes, a stretch which also included an adventurous par on the long sixth, his 15th.
Clarke’s second shot finished half-submerged in water and after deciding it was playable he removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his trouser legs and waded in.
“It was cold, very cold,” he said. “And it was slippy. I wasn’t going to put my considerable bulk any further back – I could imagine the chuckles if I had fallen over.”
It brought back memories of Payne Stewart in the 1989 Ryder Cup at The Belfry, but whereas Stewart needed three attempts to get the ball out Clarke succeeded first time and almost birdied.
With putting not the nightmare many feared on greens which during the winter became affected by a disease known as Fusarium patch, there were plenty of other good scores.
Colin Montgomerie, beaten in a play-off by Woods in Heidelberg last year, also returned a 69, while last week’s winner Paul Casey and Nick Faldo were among those to finish two under, as did Scot Raymond Russell, who holed-in-one at the 184-yard 14th.
However, Ryder Cup Welshman Phillip Price retired after 14 holes feeling unwell. He was three over at the time.