Harrington joins crowd today

Riviera is a long way from hearth and home and the friendly pubs of Dublin, Ireland. But Padraig Harrington seemed only a long, slow draw of a Guinness away from adopting the place Friday.

The 35-year-old Irishman, who smiles his way around his rounds of golf and charms the press and public afterward with just the right touch of the brogue, had a nice walk unspoiled in the second round of the Nissan Open.

His three-under-par 68 added nicely to his 63 Thursday and gave him a share of the halfway lead with 131. The other 131 was turned in by some guy named Mickelson.

That meant that Harrington's days of slipping up and down the fairways of George Thomas' legendary golf course in relative quiet -- his gallery Friday was maybe two dozen -- are now over. Today will be the Phil and Padraig Show, the last pairing out and the first one in the spotlight. The Irishman wouldn't have it any other way.

"I prefer playing with the noise," Harrington said. "It's a lot easier to play with a big gallery. It adds a bit of excitement."

If he needed a preview of today, all he had to do was recall standing over his putt on his last hole of the day, No. 9 at Riviera.

He had over-hit his second shot into the 458-yard par four, and the ball nestled just off the green, in the fringe, 60 feet away. His downhill lag putt was crucial, and he said afterward that this one was especially difficult because he hasn't played here before, hadn't had time to learn all the angles on all the greens and had no idea exactly how fast it was.

He had managed his day nicely. After bouncing all over the place on his front nine -- bogey, birdie, par, bogey, birdie, bogey, birdie, birdie, par -- he became almost robotic, with six pars and two birdies on the back going into his 18th, the ninth at Riviera. There was much psychologically at stake then, as he stood over his 60-footer. You don't want to end with a bogey that you think about all night.

He claimed he hadn't looked at the scoreboard until he was done playing.

"Minding my own business," he said.

But as he stood over the putt, and noise erupted from the area of the 17th green, and kept going in the kind of crescendo that usually translates to hole in one or eagle, he had to know it was Phil Gallery noise -- not exactly Arnie's Army, but getting louder all the time -- and had to know that Mickelson had done something special. And eagle it was.

Harrington's pre-putt routine is methodical, and so, by the time he had taken his three practice swings, then stepped in over the ball for another wait of six or seven seconds before he stroked, the distant noise had subsided and Harrington's putt was rolling nicely and lagging up three feet from the pin. He had his par, his share of the lead and his pairing with Mickelson.

That meant, then, that the real games could begin.

Harrington had played here only once before this week, a social round 18 months ago, and so he assured all that he is lucky to be where he is and is poised for the inevitable reversal of fortune.

"I made some mistakes today with club selection and shot selection," he said in a TV interview minutes after he ended his round. "I'm still not quite there. This is early season for me. I am expecting a difficult weekend."

In Ireland, they call that blarney.

Mickelson, a veteran, knew just how to respond. Asked if he were surprised that Harrington had done so well here in his first try in this tournament, Mickelson said, "No, Padraig is one of the best players in the world.... He's great with a putter. This is a perfect course for him."

In the United States, that's called bluffing the blarney.

Mickelson was right about one thing. Harrington is one of the best in the world, maybe one of those who gets the dreaded label "one of the best never to win a major." He has won once on the PGA tour, 11 times in Europe, been a touring pro since 1995 and won the prestigious European Order of Merit last year. He has finished as high as fifth in three of the four majors, the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, and he has been a Ryder Cup star, making the European team four times.

Harrington knows he is playing lights out. He knows there is little luck of the Irish involved here. And he seems to feel completely at home on a golf course where he has quickly set up housekeeping.

When he finished Friday, he looked around for somebody to give his ball to, and found a fan along the ropes, holding his daughter. Harrington gave her his golf ball and a big Dublin smile.

She had white skin and blonde hair. She looked Irish.


Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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