Little-known Groom takes early lead but Ryder Cup stars are hot on his heels
Padraig Harrington dared his rivals to 'dance' with him yesterday, as he set the early pace at the Omega Hong Kong Open. And fellow-Ryder Cup-winning stars David Howell and Miguel Angel Jimenez took up the gauntlet thrown down by the defending champion as all three shared the morning clubhouse lead after shooting five-under-par 65s.
But little-known Australian Adam Groom then gate-crashed the party of the big guns late in the day when he went one better with a six-under-par 64 to hold a slender one-shot lead over the Ryder Cup aces at the end of the first round.
'Dance with me,' Harrington had asked on the eve of the tournament. And the ever-willing Howell also accepted that invitation at the IFC Mall in Central, where officials had honoured the likeable Dubliner by having an Irish-themed Pro-Am party.
Harrington had promised after he won last year, that he would do an Irish jig when he returned this time. He kept his promise by going on stage and performing an Irish 'Riverdance' much to the delight - although some might say embarrassment - of the crowd that included Nick Faldo, who turned down the invitation to shake his booty.
'It was the first time that I've had a party in my honour as a defending champion,' said the world number six. 'It gives me an incentive to try and win again.'
And after an error-free round yesterday, the twinkle-toed Harrington promised to dance even more if he won on Sunday and took home the US$133,330 winner's purse. Most people would dance with the devil himself for a piece of that. But in Harrington's case, a win will also mean he keeps his coveted world ranking at the start of next year.
'No problems. If I win again, I will dance. I will be happy if this is all that I have to do to win again,' said Harrington, who fired five birdies, three of them - at the fourth, seventh and ninth holes at the Hong Kong Golf Club - on the back nine to get off to a dream start.
A winner of many international tournaments, Harrington then revealed that he had once been a budding dancer, too. 'I have an international trophy for Irish dancing. I won it in the States, in New York, and that's why it is international,' laughed Harrington.
When he was 12, his class from Ballyroan Boys' School, went on a trip to the United States to play Gaelic football. It was there that he first showed the world what a fine dancer he was.
'All of us were encouraged to do something Irish and I was enticed to do a dance. The trophy is now under the stairs in my mother's home,' he said.
Moving sweetly to the rhythm in his game, Harrington set the pace and returned to the clubhouse with a job well done. But he conceded that it was still early days, too soon to start polishing his dancing shoes.
'I'm very happy. Anytime you start with a low one, you are happy. You can always play yourself out on the Thursday and it's important to keep yourself in the tournament. But it's no big deal leading after the first day, there are another 54 holes to go,' said Harrington. 'A lot of work remains to be done. But it's still a nice start and good to get the adrenalin going.'
The easy-going Irishman had quite an easy day with his putter, his longest birdie effort being 15 feet - nothing compared to the 20-footer which he sunk on the final hole last year to win the title by one shot.
'But I did make a few saves out there too and that was the most pleasing part. It was a good five-under. I got up and down a few times, holed a few six-footers for par. I'm very pleased,' he added.
So were Hong Kong debutants Howell and Jimenez and South Africa's Charl Schwartzel, who all matched Harrington's 65. Howell also went around the par-70 course, where the greens looked the worse for wear on a number of holes, bogey-free. The Spaniard shot an eagle, four birdies and a bogey.
'I'm delighted. I didn't feel I played great as I was struggling with my irons. But the key was really no mistakes and just keeping it in play,' said Swindon-born Howell.
Ever game for a challenge - as he proved on Wednesday night when he took up Harrington's call to dance - Howell made up ground on the back nine by firing four birdies.
Jimenez, who has shown this year that he has a penchant for Asia having won in Bangkok and Shanghai, recovered well after dropping a shot on his second hole of the day - the par-four 11th - by eagling the 529-yard, par-five 12th.
'I hit a drive, then used a three-wood from 216 metres to land close to the hole. I hit it very well today like I have done for the past few weeks. I feel in a good mood,' said Jimenez, who was joint-second at the Korea Open last week.
Hong Kong's Derek Fung also found himself in touch with the leaders after scoring a four-under-par 66 and was one of the top Asian finishers, while the mainland's challenge was led by Liang Wenchong, who shot a 67.