Serene start is a major worry for battler Harrington

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The Independent Online

It was a worrying admission for a man going for his third major victory in a row. "No, nothing out of the ordinary to bring up at this stage," reported Padraig Harrington. No injuries or ailments – how would the Irishman handle things going so well?

Worse was to follow. A sunny morning, no wind, receptive greens. For a man who likes things as hard as possible, was this too easy? Harrington won back-to-back majors last summer in the midst of preoccupations. At Birkdale, when he was defending his Open crown, Harrington almost did not tee off due to a wrist injury. During the USPGA in Detroit a few weeks later he was complaining of dehydration and fatigue.

Yet each time Harrington found the distraction helpful. Just go out and play golf and not overcomplicate things. And when he found himself in contention, rather than almost blowing it as at Carnoustie two years ago, Harrington became the game's latest back-nine destroyer. See the eyes extend on stalks and watch him go.

But yesterday was all about not playing himself out of the tournament. Out in 35 strokes, one under par, was a good start. The preparation was perfect and the weather, too. With Harrington, that is when you begin to worry. He is better battling the odds.

Harder challenges awaited on the back nine. He had to work for his pars at the 10th and 11th holes, getting up and down. At the 12th, the short but dangerous beauty, he put his tee shot to four feet. Another birdie at the par-five 13th, where he was on the green in two blows, and he was three under par. There were a few more roars around than in recent years at Augusta and the Irishman felt the need to join in. "There was definitely a sense of urgency on the golf course," Harrington said. "I went into Amen Corner only one under but the feeling was there were birdies to be had."

Not at the 15th, the last par-five. He dropped a shot there, his little chip from behind the green almost dropping in but then running on and on away from the hole. He did get up and down at the next, though, and holed a good birdie putt at the 17th. Another chance at the last went by as a ball touched the hole but stayed out. A 69, three under par, good but not on the first page of the leader board.

"It's a good start, not tremendous, but Thursday is all about staying in the tournament and I did that," Harrington said. Often at Augusta, he has not. Only once previously had he broken par on the opening day. He also had a 69 in 2002 when he went on to finish fifth. He has two other top 10 finishes here but usually he has been battling back from something like a 74 or a 75. "It was about as generous a day as there ever is at Augusta," he said. "There were a lot of good birdie pins and the greens were soft. The committee is in control of the scoring. It was sunny and there was no wind, are they in control of that as well?

"You have to feel it is going to get harder at some stage. It would have been nice if a few more putts had gone in. But we'll wait for Sunday for them to drop. It's more important then."

Harrington seems to have developed a taste for Sunday afternoons at the majors. His plan is to make sure he is there and then see who else shows up. "I seem to have found how I need to prepare for majors," he said.

"Now the tournament has started, winning three in a row is irrelevant. I'm trying to win the Masters. I'm at full capacity just with that." Whether Tiger Woods is also there on Sunday, unlike last summer at the Open and the USPGA, is also irrelevant. "I would have to say I can't be a rival because in the end I'm always fighting myself," Harrington deflected. "I'm always competing against myself, trying to better myself. So I don't have a rival in that sense. I'm totally focused on trying to get the best performance out of me." So far, so good.

First round – early scores

(US unless stated)

*65 C Campbell

*66 J Furyk

*67 L Mize, S Katayama (Japan)

*68 T Clark (SA), J Merrick, M Weir (Can), A Cabrera (Arg)

*69 R Fisher (GB), K Sutherland, Padraig Harrington (Irl)

*70 P Marksaeng (Thai), N Watney,

M A Jiminez (Sp), B Langer (Ger), M A Jimenez (Sp), G Norman (Aus), L Westwood (Eng)

*71 K Duke, V Singh (Fiji), G Ogilvy (Aus), H Stenson (Swe)

*72 S Lyle (Sco), D Hart, D Johnson, S Hansen (Den), St Appleby (Aus)

*73 B Baird, L Oosthuizen (SA), B Curtis, R Sabbatini (SA), O Wilson (Eng), S Garcia (Sp), P Mickelson, R Imada (Japan), Le Donald (Eng), C Villegas (Col), B Baird, S Ames (Can)

*74 I Woosnam (Wal), J Rose (Eng)

*75 C Reavie, C Pettersson (Swe),

J Leonard, R Saxton (Neth), R Goosen (SA), E Els (SA)

*77 B Mayfair, C Stadler

*78 D Kittleson, G Player (SA)

*79 R Floyd, F Zoeller

*80 M Campbell (NZ)