PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Padraig Harrington was playing the Transitions Championship for the first time, and there were no surprises.
“I knew the golf course was good,” he said. “It’s as good a venue as we play all year.”
That type of word-of-mouth reputation might explain why the field is as strong as it has ever been since this tournament north of Tampa was moved into the Florida swing in March.
And it’s why Garrett Willis – and Jeff Maggert, for that matter – were lucky to even get into the field.
Willis lives up the road in Dade City, and having regained his PGA Tour card through the Nationwide Tour last year, he counted on the Transitions Championship as one he would be able to play. Imagine his surprise when enough players signed up that Willis was not among the 144 players who qualified.
“I thought I was a shoo-in,” Willis said.
Instead, he had to get a sponsor exemption two weeks ago to secure his spot. Taking full advantage, and with some family and friends tagging along Thursday, Willis went from steady to spectacular on the back nine with five birdies for a 6-under 65 and a two-shot lead.
Those at 67 included a pair of Innisbrook champions – Retief Goosen and Carl Pettersson – along with Jim Furyk, Jonathan Byrd, rookie Rickie Fowler and Maggert, perhaps the biggest surprise of the day.
Maggert got his card back through Q-school, but he didn’t fare well on the West Coast and fell back down the priority list. He was the seventh alternate at one point, and figured he would be home in Houston.
In fact, Maggert spent Wednesday afternoon at home with a shovel and some elbow grease as he tried to remove dead palm trees. It made him sore, but not above the shoulders. Learning he had moved up to the first alternate, the 46-year-old Maggert thought it would be in his best interest to at least fly to Tampa in case he got in.
He arrived at the course Thursday morning in time to hear that Vijay Singh was hurting, and minutes later the big Fijian decided to withdraw because of a back injury. Maggert warmed up, then heated up in a round of 67.
“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.”
Furyk and Pettersson deserve special consideration for when they played as much as how they played, both in the afternoon. Willis was in the second group out in the morning, and the wind didn’t really pick up until he was headed for lunch.
“I was happy to get done,” Willis said.
The cool air mixed with the steam coming out of Furyk’s ears when he failed to convert a routine up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 opening hole, knowing birdies would only become more rare as the afternoon wore on.
To his surprise, he picked up three straight birdies in the meat of the front nine and managed to get through without a bogey.
“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.”
Pettersson challenged for the lead until he had to scramble for bogey at No. 7, then make a key putt to save par on the par-3 eighth. Those were almost as important as the five birdies he made earlier.
“Those are the things when you’re playing well that keep the round going,” Pettersson said. “I’m happy with the round.”
Ross Fisher of England was the only afternoon starter in the group at 68, while Harrington had to hole a bunker shot from short of the 18th green to post a 69 in his debut at Innisbrook.
It wrapped up a whirlwind two days for Ireland’s three-time major champion. He left Tampa after lunch Wednesday to fly to the Washington. He found himself exploring various rooms in the White House during the afternoon, attending a St. Patrick’s Day celebration with President Barack Obama in the evening, then coming back to Florida.
The only regret? Not shaking hands with 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.”
What amazed Harrington was the punctuality of the day – he is anything but that.
“The party was from 6 to 9. We arrived at 6 and left at 9,” Harrington said. “That’s very unusual for me.”