Paddy Slam right on track

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Despite his attempts to downplay such talk, Padraig Harrington clearly had his sights set on the Masters.

He set up his schedule to prepare, tweaked it when his game showed signs of shakiness, then did his best to play his way into form.

Harrington, who has won three of the past six major championships, is never going to be satisfied with the state of his game, and he admits as much. But a 69 in the opening round of the Masters ties his best first-round score at Augusta National, just the second time he broke par on Day 1.

And it sets the 37-year-old up nicely as he attempts to win his third straight major championship.

"Thursday is all about staying in the event," said Harrington, whose 69 put him 4 strokes behind of first-round leader Chad Campbell. "Obviously shooting 3 under par is keeping me well in there.

"I do believe there was definitely a feeling on the golf course of urgency about the round because there are only certain easy pins out there on that golf course and we seemed to get a lot of them today. So it felt like a day that you needed to make a few birdies and you were a bit disappointed if you didn't. So there was a bit of urgency. It was a day you definitely felt like you wanted to shoot in the 60s."

As it turned out, shooting anything higher made you feel as if you were going to be left behind.

Unlike previous years when course conditions and weather made low scores rare, there was a slew of them Thursday.

"It was probably as easy of a day as I've ever seen at Augusta," said Harrington, who is playing in his 10th Masters.

It has been a long seven months since Harrington captured the PGA Championship, winning back-to-back majors and giving himself a chance to join Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan as the only players in the past 60 years to win three straight majors.

The day had the potential to get started poorly for Harrington, however. While he was accepting 2008 player of the year honors Wednesday night from the Golf Writers Association of America, Harrington's wife, Caroline, was taking their 2-year-old son, Ciaran, to the hospital because of a rash.

Caroline worried it was measles, but it turned out to be nothing more than a heat rash.

Padraig was spared any anxiety because by the time he returned, all was well -- he never even knew his wife had taken their second son for treatment.

There was plenty of angst waiting at Augusta National, where he made five birdies and two bogeys. He let a few opportunities get away, including a bogey at the par-5 15th and a birdie putt at the 18th that somehow stayed out of the hole.

"If I was happy, I would not be going to do a little more practice this afternoon," Harrington said. "So I am not quite there, no. But I am happy in this position. I've done reasonably well to get it where it is, but there's always an anxiousness to get a little more out of it, so I'll be hitting the range anyway."

At least Harrington can take consolation in his position. In his previous appearances, Harrington has typically been fighting from well behind, although he was fourth after a 69 in 2002 and 14th after a 72 in 2005.

His best finishes -- a tie for seventh in 2007 and a tie for fifth last year -- came after shooting over par in the first round.

This time, with all the hype about the Paddy Slam, Harrington finds himself in a nice spot.

"It's four rounds now," he said. "We're in the tournament and obviously trying to build up to the event, trying to play [winning three straight majors] down a bit and trying to focus on what we're doing. Once the tournament starts, it's a lot easier to play your own game and do your own thing. There are things on your mind at this stage to keep you occupied.

"Yeah, three in a row. … I'm trying to win the Masters this week, and that's big enough in itself to put enough pressure on me. Adding the extra couple of majors I've won … it's already at capacity.

"It's a long week, 72 holes, and the whole idea is to be there with nine holes to go. So far, so good."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.