There has been talk about Bethpage Black being an ideal place for the Ryder Cup, so it was fitting that the Ryder Cup consumed so much chatter after the opening round at The Barclays.
Never mind that this is the first event of the FedEx Cup playoffs, the starting point toward someone winning a $10 million bonus. Or that players returned to the notorious Black course for the first time that it wasn't hosting the U.S. Open. Or that Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, moving in the direction of a generational rivalry, played together before a boisterous crowd at Bethpage.
Padraig Harrington isn't going quietly in his bid to make Europe's side for the Ryder Cup — not so much from anything the Irishman said, but what he did. With six birdies on the tough back nine, he opened with a 7-under 64 to build a one-shot lead over Nick Watney and Brian Harman.
On the American side, Rickie Fowler chipped in on consecutive holes during a stretch of four straight birdies for a 67, matching the score from Thursday morning of Dustin Johnson. Both are in the running to be captain's picks.
"You can try and block it out as much as possible," Fowler said. "That's what everyone tells you to do. But to be honest, that's obviously where I want to be in a few weeks. I got some good work in last week, and I'm just focusing on playing well this week and let the game do its thing and see where that puts us."
It might not be that simple for Harrington, who has been in every Ryder Cup since 1999.
He hasn't won against a strong field since the 2008 PGA Championship, this third major title, and while his form is starting to improve, he cannot earn a spot on the European team. This is the final week to get one of the 10 spots, but The Barclays — one of the strongest fields of the year — does not count. The only ranking points to be earned are coming from the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles on the European tour.
European captain Jose Maria Olazabal is in Scotland, and he heard about Harrington's 64 after finishing his round. Olazabal had said Harrington would need to do something "extraordinary" to be on the team.
Asked what that would constitute, Olazabal said, "At least a win."
Harrington had the toughest time after he got off the course. There were so many questions about the Ryder Cup, his chances of making the team and what he has to do to impress Olazabal, that at one point the Irishman adopted the American way.
"The only answer I can give at this stage is I'm pleading the Fifth Amendment on that one," Harrington said. "I honestly don't know what to say. I don't want to go in there and try too desperately to beg for a pick, or I don't want to go in there and give excuses for anything. I'll just leave it be what it is. I'm just going to play golf."
That part was superb on a calm day that became increasingly warm.
It took Harrington a few holes to realize that he was back at Bethpage Black, but not at the U.S. Open. The greens were soft. The rough was deep, but not terribly dense. The pressure was not quite the same. And par wasn't going to cut it.
Harrington was even par through four holes, typically not a bad score, except that he watched Troy Matteson open with a birdie on the second hole and chip in for eagle on the fourth to reach 3 under early in the round.
"It definitely helped me cross that divide between thinking I'm at a U.S. Open and level par is going to be the winning total this week," Harrington said. "This is much more of a sprint. You're going to need to be 12-under par at the end of the week, or who knows, but it ain't going to be level par."
Sergio Garcia was part of the group at 66. Justin Rose joined the group at 67. Those at 68 included Ian Poulter, who like Harrington, cannot earn a spot on Europe's team. Unlike Harrington, he is virtually a lock to be a captain's pick.
There were 73 players from the 123-man field at par or better, not the kind of scoring associated with Bethpage Black.
Thousands of fans chased after Woods and McIlroy, in the marquee group based on their standing in the FedEx Cup — Woods at No. 1, McIlroy at No. 3. Both got off to a reasonable start. Woods scrambled nicely to recover from a few errant shots and scratched out a 68. McIlroy smashed one driver after another to set up short irons into the greens, and while he had three birdies through six holes, he let the good start get away from him and settled for a 69.
If this is a rivalry, it figures to be a friendly one. Woods genuinely likes this 23-year-old from Northern Ireland, who already has two eight-shot wins in the majors. He chatted more than usual, even for a Thursday, and during one wait on the par-3 14th, McIlroy listened intently with a smile on his face as Woods told a story, then broke into a big laugh upon hearing the punch line.
Worth repeating for a family newspaper?
"No," McIlroy said with another laugh.
"He's a nice kid, he really is," Woods said. "As I said yesterday, I played with him in Abu Dhabi. We struck up a friendship back then, and it's continued. And I think it's only going to get better."
Woods won the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2002, and he tied for sixth when the U.S. Open returned to this public course on Long Island in 2009. It looks the same, especially how the rough frames each fairway. And while there were differences in the softness of the greens and hole locations, the most obvious difference was scoring.
"I shot 3-under par and I'm not even in the top 10," Woods said. "So it's a little different deal."