Harrington, Bethpage surprise as Playoffs get under way

August 23, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- There was no terror at Bethpage State Park on Thursday. No need for the famous sign at the first tee that greets golfers with red letters, all capital, reading, "WARNING" and telling neophytes and hackers that "The Black Course is an Extremely Difficult Course Which We Recommend Only For Highly Skilled Golfers."

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In Thursday's opening round of The Barclays, the first event of the four-tournament FedExCup Playoffs, most of the highly-skilled golfers took advantage of near-perfect scoring conditions. They scorched the course designed by A.W. Tillinghast, a.k.a. "Tilly the Terror," for 34 rounds in the 60s -- eight more than were shot in the entire 72 holes of the 2002 U.S. Open on the Black, and more than half as many as were shot from Thursday through the Monday finish at the rain-soaked 2009 event.

Certainly, The Barclays is not meant to be a scoring test on par with a U.S. Open. But nobody was expecting a 7-under 64 to be leading, including the man who shot it, Padraig Harrington of Ireland. He began the day thinking par might be a good score and ended it by shooting an inward 29 on the more difficult side, birdieing Nos. 11 through 14 and 16 and 17.

"The most interesting thing was it's very hard to go out and play this course without thinking you're playing a U.S. Open," said Harrington, who added that once he changed his mindset and started thinking birdie it was "the best I've struck my putts, the best I've rolled the ball for a long period of time."

He also hit 13 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens and predicted that the winner this week will have to go low.

"You're going to need to be 12-under par at the end of the week," he said. "Or, who knows? But it ain't going to be level par."

No doubt, that's right. There's also a strong probability that Friday's scores will trend somewhat away from the 51 rounds of par or better shot Thursday. This is simply because the golf course will be firmer, slightly faster, with a possibility of some wind adding to the difficulty.

There will be no tricking up of the golf course or unusually tough measures taken by the PGA TOUR field staff, said Slugger White, Vice President of Rules, who was sanguine about Thursday's low scoring.

"We don't mind that at all," White said, adding that the course setup for the remainder of the tournament "is just going to be difficult and fair every day. This golf course is going to stand up to 'em."

With a leaderboard at The Barclays dominated by experience -- the average age among the top 25 is 36.9-years old -- that is not likely to come as any big surprise. Grizzled veteran or fuzzy-cheeked third-year pro, this is a seasoned lot: from the soon-to-be 41-year-old Harrington at the top to the 31-year-old Nick Watney in second place to 32-year-old Sergio Garcia two strokes back and tied for fourth, to the 23-year-old Rickie Fowler at 67, tied for eighth with Dustin Johnson, to Tiger Woods, 36, and Phil Mickelson, 42, and Vijay Singh, 49, all tied with the dozen players who comprise the tie for 14th at 68.

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There are so many good players packed within four strokes of the lead, picking a winner would be more difficult than Bethpage Black is likely to get if the rainless weather forecast holds up. And the firmer it gets, the more the cream will rise to the top.

Which means that Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 ranked golfer in the Official World Golf Ranking, is hardly out of it at 2 under and tied for 26th with the likes of Steve Stricker, Lee Westwood and Ryan Moore.

McIlroy, Woods and Zach Johnson put on quite a show for the early spectators, and will have the opportunity to do the same on Friday afternoon, playing in what are likely to be slightly tougher conditions.

McIlroy, who relished the side-by-side with Woods, is looking forward to it.

"I felt like I had a lot of chances out there, and I had enough chances to shoot a low one," he said. "I don't think I need to change the strategy at all of hitting a lot of drivers and trying to be aggressive, so we'll just continue to do the same thing."

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.