FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Padraig Harrington found a way to take some of the attention away from Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy on Thursday. He made six birdies on the tough back nine of Bethpage Black and opened the FedEx Cup playoffs with a 7-under 64 for a one-shot lead at The Barclays.
And that surely got the attention of Ryder Cup captain Jose Maria Olazabal.
Harrington has to rely on a captain’s pick to make his seventh straight European team, and that looks to be unlikely. Not only has the three-time major champion gone four years without winning against a strong field, he and Olazabal are not the best of friends after a dispute at the Seve Trophy from nine years ago.
The Irishman had the toughest time Thursday after he got off the difficult Black course. There were so many questions about the Ryder Cup, his chances of making the team and what he has to do to impress Olazabal, that at one point Harrington adopted the American way.
“The only answer I can give at this stage is I’m pleading the Fifth Amendment on that one,” Harrington said. “I honestly don’t know what to say. I don’t want to go in there and try too desperately to beg for a pick, or I don’t want to go in there and give excuses for anything. I’ll just leave it be what it is. I’m just going to play golf.”
That part was superb on a calm day that became increasingly warm.
It took Harrington a few holes to realize that he was back at Bethpage Black, but not at the U.S. Open. The greens were soft. The rough was deep, but not terribly dense. The pressure was not quite the same. And par wasn’t going to cut it.
He came to life on the back nine with four straight birdies to cap off his 64, giving him a one-shot lead over Nick Watney and Brian Harman among the early starters. The hotter it became, the crustier the greens were, and it was unlikely anyone would catch him. No one did.
Sergio Garcia was part of the group at 66, while defending champion Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, both trying to make their own impression as potential picks by U.S. captain Davis Love III, were in the group at 67.
There were 73 players from the 123-man field at par or better, not the kind of scoring associated with Bethpage Black.
Thousands of fans chased after Woods and McIlroy, in the marquee group based on their standing in the FedEx Cup — Woods at No. 1, McIlroy at No. 3. Both of them got off to a reasonable start. Woods scrambled nicely to recover from a few errant shots and scratched out a 68. McIlroy smashed one driver after another to set up short irons into the greens, and while he had three birdies throu gh six holes, he let the good start get away from him and settled for a 69.
If this is a rivalry, it figures to be a friendly one. Woods genuinely likes this 23-year-old from Northern Ireland, who already has two eight-shot wins in the majors. He chatted more than usual, even for a Thursday, and during one wait on the par-3 14th, McIlroy listened intently with a smile on his face as Woods told a story, then broke into a big laugh upon hearing the punch line.
Worth repeating for a family newspaper?
“No,” McIlroy said with another laugh.
“He’s a nice kid, he really is,” Woods said. “As I said yesterday, I played with him in Abu Dhabi. We struck up a friendship back then, and it’s continued. And I think it’s only going to get better.”
Woods won the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002, and he tied for sixth when the U.S. Open returned to this public course on Long Island in 2009. It looks the same, especially how the rough frames each fairway. And while there were differences in the softness of the greens and hole locations, the most obvious difference was scoring.
“I shot 3-under par and I’m not even in the top 10,” Woods said. “So it’s a little different deal.”
Harrington was even par through four holes, typically not a bad score, except that he watched Troy Matteson open with a birdie on the second hole and chip in for eagle on the fourth to reach 3 under early in the round.
“It definitely helped me cross that divide between thinking I’m at a U.S. Open and level par is going to be the winning total this week,” Harrington said. “This is much more of a sprint. You’re going to need to be 12-under par at the end of the week, or who knows, but it ain’t going to be level par.”
Harrington would figure to face a different kind of pressure — getting on the Ryder Cup team — but he found a certain peace after realizing he couldn’t earn his way onto the team after the PGA Championship. Even though Europe’s team is not finalized until after this week, ranking points from The Barclays don’t count.
So he’s out. Unless he wins. And even that might not matter.
Olazabal said at the PGA Championship that Harrington would have to do something extraordinary to make the team. He was told of Harrington’s 64 and was asked what would constitute extraordinary.
“At least a win,” Olazabal said.
Olazabal and Harrington had a tense moment at the 2003 Seve Trophy when Harrington questioned the Spaniard repairing pitch marks. Olazabal felt his integrity had been questioned, conceded the hole and they had a face-to-face discussion behind the green.
Does that still linger? Might it make a difference?
“From the character that he is, I believe he would put winning way above anything that’s personal,” Harrington said. “The Ryder Cup means so much to Europe, particularly to Jose as a European player. Nobody — bar Seve — would understand in his mind what it means to Europe. Winning is what’s important to him. I can’t see personal coming into it to get a winning team.”
Harrington then caught himself for talking about the very subject he wants to avoid. He would rather talk about his 64 at Bethpage Black, a strong effort even in soft conditions, or his chances to move up in the FedEx Cup standings and give himself a chance at the $10 million bonus prize.
“We’re talking about the wrong stuff,” he said. “But I’m Irish, and being brought up in Ireland, we pay a lot of attention to bookmakers and their odds. And I’m sure if I went and had a look at the odds, I would be a long shot to make the team.”