Harrington leads an early assault on Bethpage

Padraig Harrington fired a 7-under 64 to tie the course record at Bethpage Black on Thursday.

Padraig Harrington fired a 7-under 64 to tie the course record at Bethpage Black on Thursday.

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FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – And in response to the warning sign posted prominently at Bethpage Black, players on the way to their starting holes in Thursday’s first round of The Barclays simply sneered. “Guys,” they said, “we are highly skilled, so step aside.”

Actually, they didn’t say such a thing, but surely those who had the morning draw in the opening FedEx Cup playoff tournament made that infamous sign totally unnecessary. You know, the one that states, “Warning: The Black Course is an extremely difficult course which we recommend only for highly skilled golfers.”

Off and swinging in benign conditions – ”perfect for golf,” said Padraig Harrington – the first 60 players took advantage of very little wind, soft greens and a setup that caught even Tiger Woods by surprise. He looked at the sheet that alerts players to the hole locations and conceded, “They gave us plenty of room.”

PGA Tour officials also gave the chaps a little less real estate, just 7,350 yards, as opposed to the 7,468 at which “the Black” can play.

Put it all together and the wide, warm smiles matched the bright, toasty day. With Harrington riding an inward 29 to score 7-under 64, the early parade of red numbers was on, particularly before lunch. Of the 60 in the morning wave, 30 broke par and 42 were par or better. Harrington’s 64 was the best, though there were also two 65s, three 66s, four 67s and seven 68s, including Woods, who conceded this wasn’t the Bethpage Black he remembered from the 2009 U.S. Open.

How different was it? Consider Luke Donald. In 2009, he made two 7s in his first five holes of the opening round. Thursday, in shooting 68, he had one 5 and 17 scores of 4 or better.

No, Toto, we aren’t in the embrace of the USGA this week – though it’s truly a difficult task to remind yourself of that fact. Harrington conceded as much, because he played his first six holes in four pars, a birdie and a bogey, still under the misconception that Bethpage Black is a U.S. Open venue, where par is a great score.

When he saw playing competitor Troy Matteson make an eagle at the par 5 fourth, the Irishman did a double-take. “An eagle?” he said to himself. OK, then. Level par isn’t going to win the tournament, Harrington said to himself.

The Irishman played his last 12 holes in 7 under, which might seem like stout stuff, given that it’s a layout that left many of golf’s stars in fits a few years ago. Though the field average was only 73.814 in Round 1 of the U.S. Open (and just 70.366 in the morning yesterday), it was exponentially tougher for a variety of reasons – not the least of which was thicker rough and the hard-to-quantify-but-easy-to-identify pressure of a major championship.

“Amazing, the pressure a major brings,” Harrington said.

No denying that. But what The Barclays provides is a smorgasbord of delightful subplots that you don’t get with a run-of-the-mill major championship, where pretty much there’s one story: the winner. But here at Bethpage, up and down the entry list, you have guys playing for something of importance.

Take Pat Perez, for instance. No. 72 in your FedEx Cup standings, Perez is bothered by the fact that he is in his 11th PGA Tour season and has never qualified for the Tour Championship.

“I’ve never been to Atlanta (East Lake GC),” Perez said. “One day in my life, I’d like to go. I’d like to play it once.”

He has taken the first step in qualifying for the FedEx Cup playoffs, but something about this Barclays has not been kind to him. Regardless of the venue – Westchester or Liberty National, Ridgewood or Plainfield – Perez has missed the cut all five years in this playoff opener “and that’s killed (his chances for the Tour Championship).”

Consider his 2012 hopes greatly enhanced, because Perez birdied each of his first three holes, shot 66, and the always-popular “projection” had him leapfrogging into 29th place in the FEC standings. And, as all of us have learned in our FEC 101 primer, the top 30 after the BMW Championship qualify for the Tour Championship, and besides the chance to divvy an $8 million purse between you and 29 of your friends, there’s the bonus of knowing you’re in all the biggest tournaments the next season.

“The Tour Championship would be a huge deal for me,” said Perez, who in his career has played in just two Masters, for U.S. Opens and three Open Championships. “To be able to set that schedule and know I’m in everything. I won’t get (ripped off) on hotel rooms, buying them last minute. That would be nice.”

Behind dark shades to block out the pulsating sunshine, he shook his head. “This,” he said, “is like a whole new year for me, these four weeks.”

Similarly, PGA Tour rookie Brian Harman surpassed Perez’s score by one but matched his enthusiasm for what’s at stake. But you’ve heard that no one can figure out the points distribution system? Not true with Harman.

“I guess they’re quadrupled this week. Is that right?”

Actually, not quite. You get five times as many points, so that instead of the 500 points a winner would get for a regular-season tournament, this week he’d get 2,500. Second-place will get 1,500, not 300, and so on down the line.

Harman smiled. Give him credit. He was at least on the right path, and he’s surely headed in the right direction with his play. His seven birdies against one bogey to shoot 65 and share second with Nick Watney had Harman “projected” to move 87 spots and sit 10th in the FEC standings.

Now that gives the tournament meaning, even if he isn’t zeroed in on the exact-points thing.

“I know there’s more this week than there normally is,” Harman said. “I do know this: They give a winning check to the guy with the low score, and the higher you finish, the better it’s going to be.”

For some, Round 1 was as good as it gets – not only for the morning competitors who suggest they’ll never see Bethpage play any easier, but also for fans who got a pairing of Woods and Rory McIlroy. Early on, the wunderkind from Northern Ireland was on fire – 3 under for six holes – but by round’s end, Woods sneaked in at 68, one better than McIlroy.

Neither seemed upset, nor were they spotted rushing to the nearest computer to hit refresh and see where they are projected in the FEC race. Oh, and they aren’t involved in that other delightful storyline that is ongoing this week: the battle for Ryder Cup participation.

Harrington is considered to be in the mix for a European captain’s pick, which even McIlroy suggested would have to be a formality “should he win this week.” But just as Dustin Johnson, who didn’t hurt his hopes of being one of Davis Love’s picks for the U.S. by opening with 67, tries to sidestep the topic (“I think I’ll be an asset to the team, but I just need to go play golf,” he said), Harrington laughs that “I’ll plead the Fifth Amendment.”

Do they have such a thing in Ireland?

“We watch a lot of American movies,” Harrington said, laughing. “But, no, we don’t have that right.”

He does, however, have a piece of several storylines swirling here – the chance to win a tournament and nail down a seventh consecutive Ryder Cup spot.

Perez, while excited to compete for a spot in the Tour Championship, doesn’t feel as rich. There’s no Ryder Cup spot in his future.

“I’d have to win this week and next to even have a remote chance of Davis to even call me and say, ‘I’m not picking you,’ “ Perez said, smiling.

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