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Harrington leads rainy Nedbank Challenge

SUN CITY, South Africa – Padraig Harrington led the Nedbank Golf Challenge by one stroke after picking up five birdies on the back nine to shoot a 6-under 66 in Thursday’s opening round.

The Irishman’s first birdie came on his eighth hole, but he made seven in his last 11 holes to overhaul early pacesetter Ross Fisher of England at the Gary Player Country Club in Sun City.

Fisher had led at 7 under before a double bogey at No. 17, just before play was suspended for nearly two hours because of rain and a lightning warning.

Lee Westwood shot a 68 after overcoming a slow start. The top-ranked Englishman began with five pars and a bogey before finding his range with five birdies in eight holes from No. 7.

Harrington, ranked No. 22 with his only win in 2010 on the Asian Tour, was wayward early and had to hit two provisional shots on the par-5 No. 2. But the three-time major winner kept making pars until holing four successive birdies from No. 8.

“I am very happy with that,” Harrington said. “I did not have high expectations going out, and sometimes when you do not have high expectations you tend to run with it well and that is what I did today.”

“I do not feel on top of my game but I’m going to have to use all my grit over the next three days … it is going to be some good golf and some bad golf. But if I work at it, I can do the job.”

Westwood’s sole bogey came on the par-4 No. 6, but he responded immediately with a birdie two to kickstart his challenge.

“It was good to bounce back straight away and I played pretty solidly from there on in,” he said. “All in all, I’m quite pleased – 68 is a nice way to start. I enjoy playing here, it suits my eye.”

Fisher looked set to be the first-round leader when he led by two shots with two holes to play. But the big-hitting Englishman sent his drive left at the par-4 No. 17, chipped out of the rough onto the fairway and then overshot the green. He ended up with a six, just minutes before the weather warning sounded and play was temporarily suspended.

“It was one of those things,” Fisher said. “I’m still satisfied with minus five, but at the same time you can still be slightly disappointed after playing that well and only walking off with 5 under.”

Five Europeans – the top four all Ryder Cup winners – occupy the top six places at Sun City.

Miguel Angel Jimenez of Spain hit a 69 to be fourth. Defending champion Robert Allenby of Australia and Justin Rose of England are tied for fifth after shooting 70s.

The enthusiastic South African fans, who regard the Nedbank as “Africa’s major,” received little joy from their four home golfers.

Three-time winner Ernie Els and British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen had 71s to lead the challenge. Retief Goosen hit a 72, while Tim Clark shot a 73 after making a triple-bogey seven at No. 6.

Edoardo Molinari (71) and Anders Hansen (72) are also in the field at the $5 million, 12-player invitational event.