PALM HARBOR — Padraig Harrington has been waiting for days like this. For too many rounds over the past year and a half, the 40-year-old Irishman has walked off courses disappointed with the results.
But on Thursday everything fell into place.
Harrington shot a Copperhead course-record 10-under 61 for a three-stroke lead over PGA Tour rookie Will Claxton after the first round of the Transitions Championship. A group of seven golfers are five strokes back, including veteran Kenny Perry and former Transitions champion Jim Furyk.
Harrington's 61 is the lowest round of his PGA Tour career, and it's only his fourth round in the 60s out of 12 this season. He made 10 birdies during his bogey-free round and needed only 22 putts. He one-putted 14 holes.
"I felt like I've played better than I've performed over the last 18 months," said Harrington, whose last win on any tour was at the 2010 Iskandar Johor Open in Asia. "When things are going well for you, you walk off the course thinking you shot 70 and you shot 68. When things are not going well for you, you walk off the course feeling like you shot 70 and you shot 72. I was on that 72 bandwagon for a long time."
Harrington teed off in the morning and took advantage of the calm conditions. He started with two straight birdies and made the turn at 5 under. By the time he reached the par-5 11th hole, Harrington was 6 under and putting for birdie.
That's when thoughts of golf's holiest of numbers popped into his head: 59. He missed the putt.
"I choked like a dog," Harrington said. "I'd love to tell you I was so good that bad thoughts didn't pop into my head. But unfortunately they do. But I think I gained after that. (Fifty-nine) certainly went out of my head."
After that, Harrington birdied four more times, including three straight to end his round. On the par-3 17th, Harrington drained a 75-footer for birdie. It was the longest putt he has ever made on tour. "That's a bonus, obviously," he said.
Comparatively, Harrington's 15-footer for birdie on 18 was a gimme.
"When it's your day, I could've turned my back on the hole and I would have holed out on the last," said Harrington, who lowered by one the course mark held by Mark Calcavecchia (2007) and Jeff Sluman (2004).
Claxton, also playing in the morning, emerged as Harrington's closest pursuer. He, too, played a bogey-free round and had five birdies and an eagle on the par-5 14th hole. He holed out a wedge from 95 yards.
"That's tough when you get a lot out of your round and you're still three back," Claxton said. "For the most part, I never really had an opportunity to make a bogey. I missed some birdie putts, but I'm not going to complain about that. I even holed one out on 14. That really got me going."
Every other player in the field will spend today trying to close the gap on Harrington. He will play in the afternoon, when scores are typically higher.
Harrington has slipped since his stellar 2008 season when he won both the British Open and the PGA Championship. His official World Golf Ranking has fallen to 90th, which means he does not qualify for the World Golf Championships events.
This is only his fourth tournament of the year, and his last official round was a 79 on the final day of the Honda Classic in Palm Beach. He said he felt good preparing for the tournament, but that has been nothing new lately.
"I've been playing nicely in practice," Harrington said. "I shot a 64 (Wednesday). I've been like that for a long time now. I play better on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday than I do on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I know my game is good. One of the hardest things is to wait for the confidence."