SOUTHPORT, England It's Groundhog Day for Northern Ireland's 28-year-old Graeme McDowell, who also led after the first round of the British Open the last time it was held near Liverpool, in 2006 at Hoylake. But that year his inexperience in the rarefied atmosphere at the top of a major leader board led him to plummet backwards at the weekend and finish tied for 61st.
McDowell's fall was almost as swift as Tiger Woods's rise on the way to his third British Open title. Of course, there's no Tiger fear factor this week and McDowell is now the hottest player on the European Tour, arriving at Birkdale as last week's Scottish Open champion at Loch Lomond. It was his second victory of the season (the fourth of his career) and came after he had sung "We are the champions" in a Korean karaoke bar while celebrating his win at the Ballantine's Championship earlier this year. McDowell is now sixth in Europe's Ryder Cup standings and is almost a lock to make his debut against the U.S. team at Valhalla in Kentucky this September.
A birdie, birdie finish at Royal Birkdale got McDowell to one under par and a tie for the lead with Rocco Mediate and Robert Allenby. In contrast to 2006, he's a shade more relaxed at the top. "I felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights at Hoylake," McDowell admitted honestly. "And back then I lacked belief in my swing. But I have been getting fitter and stringing four rounds together better in the last 12 months and dealing with the media more lately, so I feel comfortable this time sitting here this time."
Sipping his morning coffee and watching TV as the early groups dealt with the biblical weather, McDowell said he took comfort from having a game honed for 14 years in just such conditions on his home course, the links at Royal Portrush.
"There's no doubt that the links short game is so different to what most people are used to," he noted. "Especially for the Americans. You can be chipping with lob wedges or hybrids or even 3-woods. The wind made a three-club difference, but I am pretty good at understanding the gusts. At the par three fourth in practice yesterday I aimed a 4-iron 20 yards left trying to hit a hard pull hook into a 30 miles-per-hour gusting crosswind. I thought, Wow, this course is tough."
So when McDowell saw the weather on Thursday he and his caddie worked out a survival plan. "We played each hole like 18 little challenges where par was the target," McDowell explained. "The [par-5] 17th was the first time all day that I had an iron in my hand and thought I could make birdie."
This is McDowell's fifth tournament in as many weeks but he said he still feels fresh and is not yet running on fumes. "It was hard to come down from the elation of winning last Sunday," McDowell said. "But we've got the biggest tournament on the planet to deal with."