PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Padraig Harrington didn’t have the best score at Innisbrook, just one of the biggest smiles.
He finished his opening round Thursday at the Transitions Championship by holing out a bunker shot for birdie on the 18th hole, then happily shared memories of his first trip to the White House and a St. Patrick’s Day celebration with President Barack Obama.
Garrett Willis, who only learned two weeks ago that he received an exemption to his hometown event, made five birdies on the back for a 6-under 65 and a two-shot lead over defending champion Retief Goosen and five others.
Harrington had to settle for a 69 in his first trip to Innisbrook.
It was the day before – a whirlwind trip to Washington for his favorite holiday – that kept him so upbeat. He explored various rooms in the White House, then went to a gala hosted by Obama and Ireland’s prime minister.
The only regret? Not taking the opportunity to greet Obama.
“When it finished off, people obviously were going up to say ‘Hello,’ and I sort of stayed back,” Harrington said. “I missed the opportunity, but it will happen again. And the end of the day, it was just nice to be there. I was close enough, let’s say.”
If the White House was a new experience, so was the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook, with a strong reputation that grows each year. Harrington had never played the Transitions Championship, and while he had a practice round earlier in the week, his lack of knowledge showed at times.
On the par-3 17th, which played 224 yards into a cold wind, Harrington figured he could attack with a 5-wood only to realize there was a spine in the back of the green that made for a tough chip and led to a bogey.
“You don’t have to do very much wrong to drop a shot,” Harrington said.
That wasn’t a problem for Willis, who knows this course well from living about 40 miles up the highway. His trouble was getting into the tournament. Willis figured that he would be a lock for this event, but the field is stronger than ever – 14 of the top 25 in the world – and he needed a late sponsor exemption to get a tee time.
His round turned after getting into trouble on the 10th, where he drove into the trees and then went over the green. Instead of another bogey, he chipped in for birdie, the first of three in a row.
“Next thing you know, it just birdie after birdie,” Willis said, who picked them up on the par 5s, and with a pair of 15-foot putts.
Another surprise came from Jeff Maggert.
Maggert was the seventh alternate at one point, and he was home in Houston on Wednesday clearing out dead palm trees from his yard when he caught the last flight to Tampa. Maggert arrived at Innisbrook to learn Vijay Singh had withdrawn because of a back injury, then shot a 4-under 67 to join Goosen, Jim Furyk, Carl Pettersson, Jonathan Byrd and PGA Tour rookie Rickie Fowler.
Maggert’s only problem was soreness from doing so much yard work, that a sloppy bogey on the par-5 11th hole.
“I enjoy the golf course,” Maggert said. “I wish I didn’t have to wait until the last minute to get in, but it just worked out.”
Goosen already is a two-time winner at Innisbrook – once in the autumn, once in the spring – and continues to rely on a belly putter and a cross-handed grip. It seems to be working, and he made enough for a strong start to his title defense.
Pettersson also is a past champion, and like so many other players, some of his pars were what kept the round going. The wind kicked up not long after Willis finished in the morning, and picking up birdies became a chore.
That’s what irritated Furyk so much when he failed to convert a routine up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 opening hole.
“I was kind of kicking myself, because I knew it was going to be a tough day,” Furyk said. “Then I went on a tear and birdied some really hard holes. It was nice to get off to a good start. The greens are quite quick, and these greens have a lot of undulation. When the wind is blowing, it’s just a tough day to score.”
It didn’t help to play in such cool temperatures, unexpected this time of the year in Florida.
“It was warmer in Washington than it is here,” Harrington said.