PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Exaggeration is ever present, especially in sports. Padraig Harrington showed proper perspective when, after shooting a sterling 61 in the first round of the Transitions Championship, he was asked about the “struggles” that have dropped him to 90th in the world.
“To be honest, I’m a professional golfer,” he said. “There isn’t a low point in being a professional golfer. I mean, let’s be realistic.”
Harrington undoubtedly leads a privileged life, but golf has not come as easy as it did when he was picking off major championships with ease. Harrington, who won three of six majors in 2007-08, once ranked third in the Official World Golf Ranking.
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Success like his – he won the Open Championship in 2007-08 and the 2008 PGA Championship – isn’t sustainable for players not named Jack or Tiger. “Sports, we have this thing, especially in golf, that somebody who plays well, a lot of people think, oh, they are just going to continue to play well; they may improve, but it’s going to be little up and downs as they go along,” he said. “if you’ve had a peak, you have to go back to the normality. … But trying to explain that all the time, it’s quite tough.”
Harrington’s game hasn’t returned to average, though. He’s been in a valley for some time, awaiting a return to the mean.
Thursday may have signaled the start of that upswing. Only time will tell. His bogey-free 61 was the lowest official round of his career and broke the course record of Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course. His shortest birdie putt was 5 feet. Six of his 10 birdie putts were 10 feet or longer. He holed out from 17 feet on the 17th and 16 feet on the 18th.
“I could have turned my back on the hole and I would have holed the putt on the last,” he said. “That’s just the way it is when things are going for you.”
Harrington hasn’t won since the 2010 Johor Open. He failed to qualify for both this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play and Cadillac Championship. He’s still exempt for the majors, though, based on his past Grand Slam victories..
“It’s not like I could be working any harder or trying any harder,” he said. “Just have to take it on the chin really. You feel like you’re good enough, but if your performances are not good enough you have no one else to blame.”
He’s been working with Dave Alred, who’s helped instilled discipline in his practice. Alred helped Luke Donald as he rose to No. 1 in the world. “When I’m on the range, I try and hit every shot like it means something,” Harrington said. “I can’t walk on to the range and warm up by hitting a shot. I have to be warmed up and hit the first shot like it’s a tournament shot.”
Innisbrook is one of the players’ favorite courses on the PGA Tour. It’s also one of the Tour’s most difficult layouts, outside of the majors. Players were able to score well Thursday morning, though. Harrington is three shots ahead of rookie Will Claxton, a Q-School graduate.
Claxton isn’t new to Innisbrook, though. He finished 67th here last year after Monday qualifying. He has three top-25s in six starts this year, but there’s no coincidence his career-low PGA Tour round came at this course. “It’s the first tournament I’ve come to this year where I’m not fretting to get a practice round in,” Claxton said. “It definitely eased my mind quite a bit.”
John Senden, coming off a 65 in the final round at Doral, was in a large group at 66 that included William McGirt and 51-year-old Kenny Perry, making a rare appearance on the PGA Tour.
Doral winner Justin Rose and Luke Donald were at 67, while defending champion Gary Woodland opened with a 68.
Harrington’s round should help him rest easy, as well. He said his game was good in practice, but that he’d struggled for the past 18 months to post scores that indicated he was playing well.
“I play better on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday than I do on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” Harrington said. “I’m trying to stay patient. I know my game is good.
“When things are going for you, you walk off the golf course you walk off the golf course thinking you played like you shot 70 and you shot 68. When things are not going well for you, you walk off the golf course feeling you played like you shot 70 and shot 72.”
And then there are days you can revel in shooting 61.