Padraig Harrington’s hopes of a successful title defence at the Charles Schwab Championship in Phoenix look a lot brighter after day two of the season-ending Champions Tour event after the Dubliner moved to within one shot of the lead with a scintillating eight-under 63.
Victory in last week’s Timbertech Championship was Harrington’s second of the season, but in his pre-tournament press conference he’d admitted to never being sure what each week is going to bring when you hit that opening tee shot, and a rather sloppy opening round saw him play the par-5s in one-over and fall six shots back.
But he was a different animal on Friday, and signalled it right off the bat with back-to-back birdies on the opening two holes. He’d add two more on the front side, and then four more on the back, going bogey-free on the day, and his eight-under lifted him into a tie for third, one behind Steven Alker and Marco Dawson.
The only disappointment for Harrington was that he parred the par-5 closing hole, but his -2 tally on the longer holes was a marked improvement from Thursday and he’s now the favourite to secure victory number three and make it back-to-back Champions Tour wins as well as back-to-back Schwab Championships.
“I don’t know where I’m going to finish up at the end of the day,” he said after the round, “but I kind of said it yesterday, you know. I bogeyed the last yesterday. If I birdied and got to four-under par, that was OK, but two-under par left me with a lot to do. I was thankful that this is a 72-hole tournament. When I tweeted that out, it’s a 72-hole tournament, I also meant that I better get back in it quick because this is the reality of the Champions Tour. You can’t fall too far behind, there’s too many guys going to go forward. So yeah, it was important to come out and shoot a low one today.”
Harrington admits that there is a little added pressure when you’re trying to defend a title, not that it’s a conscious thing, but expectations can often have a detrimental effect.
“I think it can be hard,” he said. “I think I went out there yesterday with a lot of expectations and was getting a little bit down on myself at times, and even today my caddie said after I hit a good shot on one hole, he said, you know, you can smile. I think that kind of happens at times when you have those expectations when you’re defending, when you feel like you’re playing great, you can put yourself under a little bit too much pressure instead of your best performances sometimes come when — I know it’s a cliche, when you let it happen.”
He’s now within touching distance of Alker and Dawson, both of whom shot impressive seven-under 64s, and he’ll play alongside Alex Cejka on moving day. Cejka, of course, defeated Harrington in a playoff in biblical conditions at Royal Porthcawl to take the Senior Open Championship title back in July.
First round leader Ernie Els could only manage a one-under 70 on day two, but that still leaves him a shot behind Harrington at -9 and Miguel Angel Jimenez and KJ Choi, who round out the top-10 are only three adrift of the leaders.
Darren Clarke’s fortunes improved as he shot a two-under 69 to climb to -1 overall. For the second day in succession however, a double bogey proved costly as he’d made four birdies in his opening 10 holes to move to -3 overall but a six at the par-4 11th put the brakes on and it looks as though his chances of getting his first win of the season have all but gone.