Harrington enjoying life at the top

Padraig Harrington, Europe’s leading hope for the Masters next week and the world No 8, is puzzled.

Padraig Harrington, Europe’s leading hope for the Masters next week and the world No 8, is puzzled.

He is not really sure how he has arrived at such a lofty position.

“It baffles me. Every day I look at it,” said the Irishman. “It’s not that I can’t believe it, but I have to pinch myself. I never expected it.”

Yet five days before the start of the first major championship of the season Harrington, who when he first turned professional in 1995 had no higher goal than to keep his job, has the chance to climb even higher in the rankings – and to claim his maiden US Tour victory.

Entering the third round of the BellSouth Classic at Atlanta’s Sugarloaf course, the 32-year-old, runner-up in the Players Championship in Florida last weekend, was joint seventh, only four strokes behind leader Zach Johnson.

Moreover, the six players ahead of him at halfway have only one US Tour win between them – Ben Crane at this same event last year.

Harrington added a 69 to his opening 70 and what pleased him most was that it did not contain any of the mental errors of the first round.

“I had none of the ups and downs. I felt strong and I played solid. The wind is very difficult to judge, but I applied myself well,” he stated. “I’d say I went from three out of 10 mentally to a seven.”

While this would be his first official victory in the States, the Ryder Cup star has won in America before – and beat Tiger Woods head-to-head to achieve it.

The 2002 Target World Challenge in California is an end-of-season special event with no halfway cut. But pocketing that million dollar cheque and finishing second in the last two Players Championships are significant landmarks in the making of the Dubliner.

While accepting that there is still a gulf between him and golf’s top three of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Ernie Els, he hopes his best is still to come.

“I believe I’m developing as a player. I’m learning every day and I have stuff to develop that you can’t rush. It’s very interesting to me,” said Harrington.

Johnson, winner of the ‘second division’ Nationwide Tour last season, is two ahead of Crane, Craig Bowden and Tim Petrovic – but Adam Scott, last week’s winner, is nowhere to be seen.

The 23-year-old Australian, well placed after his initial 68, crashed to a 79 and missed the cut by two.

It does not look good on paper for his Masters chances, but Canadian Mike Weir made the same early exit last year and went on to triumph at Augusta.

Paul Lawrie, Phillip Price and Thomas Bjorn, all Masters-bound as well, also bowed out last night, while Jose Maria Olazabal went from joint first-round leader to seven back with a 77.

Alongside him on two under is England’s Luke Donald, while Phil Mickelson is one closer to the leaders.

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