Dream start for Harrington

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The Independent Online

Padraig Harrington, emerging from a winter when he made yet more changes to his golf game, had a dream start to his season today.

But even a seven under par 65 was not quite good enough for the lead after the opening round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

That distinction belonged to in-form South African Charl Schwartzel, who four days after retaining the Joburg Open shot 64 and is now a staggering 60 under for his last 13 rounds.

It might have been even better. The 26-year-old was eight under after 12 holes, but bogeyed the 17th before picking up another stroke at the par five last.

Harrington, without a European Tour victory since the 2008 US PGA Championship, had set the early pace helped by the luck of the Irish on the long eighth, his 17th.

The 39-year-old's chip for eagle hit the flag at speed and dropped in.

"It was a shock it went in at that pace," he admitted.

Lying third after rounds of 66 were Swede Alexander Noren and US Open champion and Ryder Cup hero Graeme McDowell, who in a spectacular run birdied the last five holes for an inward 30.

One further back were defending champion Martin Kaymer and England's Danny Willett, who still had three to play, while world number one Lee Westwood opened his year with a 69.

But Ian Poulter crashed to a 75 and was down near the rear of a star-studded field containing all four current major champions.

Among them, of course, was Masters champion Phil Mickelson, but on his Middle East debut the American had to settle for a 71 including only two birdies.

Constantly making adjustments to his swing, Harrington also has a new putting routine for the new campaign and just as important as the eagle was a closing 12-foot par putt after finding sand.

"The first putt of the day I was away with the fairies, but I made the most out of the round - another day that would have been 69," he said.

"One thing showed up in the States last year. I was about 156th in every putting category, so something needed to be done."

Harrington has never been one to leave any stone unturned in his quest to maximise his talent. His attention to detail has even included having the specific gravity of his urine measured on a regular basis to help compile a picture of his stress levels and dietary needs.

Westwood drove into the lake on the sixth for his only bogey, but was "delighted" overall.

"It's a course I battle with and it was nice to make that (15-foot) putt on the last - I felt I deserved to break 70," he commented before confirming that he will not be playing the Players Championship in Florida in May because of US Tour restrictions placed on him as a non-member.

McDowell survived a rules inquiry after his round, with European Tour senior referee Andy McFee judging that the Ulsterman's ball had oscillated but not moved as he addressed it before his pitch to the last.

His 66 stood as a result and Willett was alongside him after another birdie at the 17th, but the 23-year-old vicar's son from Yorkshire finished with a disappointing bogey six and slipped back to joint sixth.