Rose battles bug to keep in Merit race with Harrington

Devalued it may have been, but that does not necessarily mean the race for the Order of Merit has to be devoid of excitement. Indeed, the absence of the money-list leader Ernie Els from the Volvo Masters may just have helped in cranking up the tension of this season-ender. Yesterday's first round certainly cast Padraig Harrington and Justin Rose in an enthralling head-to-head battle in their efforts to leapfrog the South African.

The scoreboard informed, at the end of a day defined by high wind, that there was one shot between the Englishman and the Irishman and that the top-three placing they both require to overhaul Els's near £200,000 lead is well within their sights. Rose, on one-under, is two behind the Ulsterman Graeme McDowell, with Harrington poised following a level-par 71. This was a sizeable achievement for the protagonists as both had to overcome problems that would have derailed lesser competitors. For Rose it was moving bowels to counter; for Harrington a moving ball.

Rose's handicap was clearly the most pronounced as he arrived on the first tee having had hardly any sleep thanks to what he described, rather hopefully, as "a 24-hour bug". The 27-year-old looked so rough that Harrington later joked he was not sure whether it would be wise to shake his hand, especially as Rose's caddie had revealed his employer had just been forced to pop behind the media centre to vomit. "That worried me as did the diarrhoea," said Rose. "If you have that on a golf course there is no way to freaking hide. Fortunately, I managed to get around." He had the doctor who had hastily put him on an intravenous drip and medication in the morning for that small mercy.

It was all so eerily similar to the plight of Paul Casey at this same event last year, although that particular bug was ghastly enough to ruin Casey's challenge for the tournament and so allow Harrington to pip him to the Order of Merit title. In contrast, Rose found something to get him through – it was called adrenaline and it fairly mainlined into his system when he recorded the sixth hole-in-one of his career at the third. "It was a six iron, 181 yards," he explained. "At the top of its flight I could see it stalling a little bit so I shouted 'Go!'. And when it landed I shouted 'In!'"

It remained true to its owner's word, which was a loyalty Harrington discovered he could not rely on four holes later. A gust blew his ball two feet after he had addressed it on the green, meaning he forfeited a penalty stroke. In the event, he was happy to escape with a bogey, but by now Harrington was five strokes off his playing partner and careering down the leaderboard. At that stage, the chief threat to Rose – just £450 behind Harrington – seemed to be the other professionals who could deny him the podium finish.

But Harrington proved at Carnoustie on that fateful afternoon three months ago that he is vehemently opposed to giving up and six birdies in his next 11 holes hurtled the Open champion back into the frame. With Valderrama playing this tough that was some inward nine and Harrington was understandably ecstatic. So, too, was Rose, tied in third and ready to return to his bed for an uninterrupted slumber. "If you had offered me that score when I was imprisoned in the lavatory this morning I would have snapped your hand off," he said.