By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Yes, that was Padraig Harrington kicking footballs, not futbols, into the grandstands at the 16th hole at TPC Scottsdale on Saturday. He'll probably do it again during the final round, too.
The Irishman came to play in the Waste Management Phoenix Open for the first time this week determined to embrace the atmosphere, and as it turns out, Harrington has been energized by it as well.
The three-time major champion fired a 63 on Saturday that matched his second-lowest score on the PGA TOUR and landed Harrington in Sunday's final pairing with Phil Mickelson and Brandt Snedeker. Granted, he's eight strokes behind Mickelson, tied with Ryan Moore, but Harrington is very pleased with the state of his game.
And with good reason. Harrington started Saturday with three straight birdies, then added another at the fifth hole and eventually made the turn in 30. He got to 14 under with a birdie at the 11th hole, then bounced back from his lone bogey with a birdie at the par-5 13th when he two-putted from 15 feet. He flushed it at the next par 5 and capped his scoring with a 9-footer for eagle.
Harrington said the quick start set the stage for the round.
"Then your confidence is open," he explained. "I kept creating chances from then on in. If I look back at the round, you know, it's possible I could say I had a lot of chances that I didn't take, but ultimately, you know, my game is in good shape so it's easier to be patient when your game is in good shape.
"You don't feel like this is your only opportunity, let's say."
Harrington said the idea to kick the footballs into the crowd at the 16th hole came from his sponsor, Wilson, who makes the official football of the NFL and Sunday's Super Bowl. He used his caddy for a placeholder for the first, then punted another six or seven. He said he was more nervous doing that than hitting that 8-iron to 16 feet.
"I'm a professional golfer," Harrington said. "I have hit 8-irons before in my life under pressure. I have a routine, and I know what I'm doing. When it comes to kicking especially an American football, I have never done it before.
"I did not want to screw up the first one along the ground, for sure. I did want to get it airborne a little bit of distance. I found when I punted it, the first three or four, I hooked them quite a bit, and then the last one, I actually made sweet contact and kicked it over the stand, actually cleared the whole thing."
Playing the final four holes was a kick for Harrington, as well. He liked seeing Irish flags in the gallery and he loved that the fans at the 16th amused themselves by chanting the quintessential soccer refrain "Ole, ole, ole."
"Having gone to football matches in my day and sang it myself, when it's sung to you, it's a special," he said.
Harrington, who is seeking his first TOUR win since he won his second and third majors in 2008, likened the emotions he felt playing the closing stretch at TPC Scottsdale to the way he felt making his professional debut.
"You know what you're doing, but it's hard to keep your mind from racing away from you," he explained. "... The adrenaline is pumping over those last three, four holes. Very exciting indeed."
Take the 17th hole, a 337-yard par 4. Harrington said he hit his driver as easy as he could there because he was so pumped up after walking out of the stadium at No. 16.
"It is exciting," Harrington said. "You have to embrace that. That's what we're here for. We play a lot of events during the year and good events, but this is unique here. ... It's unique in a great way. I really do like the idea. You know, you've got to enjoy it. You've got to love it and, as I said, embrace it.
"Yeah, your emotions run away a bit. ... You're feeling the exact same emotions as you would be if you're trying to win the tournament and you're only out there. It's exciting. You know, you'd love golf to be like that certainly a lot of weeks."