Pádraig Harrington may have to go toe to toe with Rory McIlroy to get the win he needs to qualify for the Masters after the Ulster ace sensationally stormed into the lead at the Honda Classic.
The 24-year old Holywood star made a simply breathtaking return to the course where he suffered a meltdown and walked off last year, firing seven birdies in an immaculate seven under par 63 to lead by two in the clubhouse from Rory Sabbatini, Welshman Jamie Donaldson and American William McGirt.
The world No 8 looks all but unstoppable but Harrington is not far away having finally got a break this year when he rode his luck and opened with a two under 68 to lie five shots ack.
“I need to win to get into the Masters,” said Harrington who hasn’t missed a trip to Augusta National since he first qualified in 2000. “So I will be thinking about it if I have a chance to win the tournament for sure and trying not to get distracted my it.”
McIlroy was in sensational form just a year after suffering a meltdown and walking off the course — missing just four fairways and taking just 25 putts in his first bogey free trip around PGA National in 18 starts.
After a par save from 10 feet at the first he birdied the second from 28 feet, chipped close for another birdie at the third and saved par from 10 feet at the ninth to turn in 33.
He birdied the second from 28 feet, chipped close from the apron for another birdie at the par-five third and had chances for further birdies at the fourth and seventh.
He then birdied the first three holes on the back nine, holing from eight feet at the 10th before a 45-footer staggered into the hole on the last roll at the 11th.
At the 12th he blasted a 310 yards drive and flipped a wedge to six feet from 144 yards and holed the putt to grab a share of the lead.
Birdie chances narrowly missed at the 13th and 14th and when he safely negotiated the tough 15th in par, only a disaster through the rest of the Bear Trap holes could deny him an opening round in the mid-60s.
He did even better than that. After comfortably two putting from 22 feet at the 16th, he hit a 191-yard seven iron 12 feet left of the stick at the 17th and holed home the putt with his parents Gerry and Rosie watching from the grandstand.
At the last, he was unlucky to see his 300 yard drive run through the fairway by a few feet, found a greenside trap with a five wood but splashed out to xx feet and holed the putt.
As for Harrington, this is the first five events he’s planned between now and the Masters and while he did not play his best golf, he certainly got the most out of his round.
“I didn’t play so well today but I scored well,” Harrington said. “I haven’t been doing that for a while so I am wondering if I should leave it alone. Playing badly and scoring well is a lot better than playing well and scoring badly.
After a stuttering start that saw him hole a 10 footer for par at the first and bogey the second, his day was transformed when he hit a three hybrid from 228 yards to eight feet at the third and rolled in the putt for an eagle three.
He birdied the 12th from 12 feet and was unlucky not to pick up a shot or two coming home, especially at the tough 17th, where he lipped out from eight feet.
But he had his breaks too, coming within a few feet of the water at the ninth, which he bogeyed, and even closer to going out of bounds at the 13th.
“If anything, I hit a couple of bad three woods off the tee,” he said. “I hit one in the hazard on nine, which is a long way off line and on 13 I was lucky not to be out of bounds.
It was a different story for Darren Clarke he crashed to a 77 to end up second last on seven over.
He double bogeyed the second and bogeyed the eighth to turn in 38 before lurching home in 39 with birdies at the 13th and 15th completely obliterated by bogeys at the 10th, 12th and 18th and a double bogey five at the 17th.
Tiger Woods also had his troubles, carding a one over 71 while Graeme McDowell was level par playing the last after birdies at the first and eighth and a double bogey six at the fourth, where he was bunkered and took four to get up and down.
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