Graeme McDowell, determined to get his game turned around, saw more results Friday when he ran off seven birdies in an eight-hole stretch Friday for an 8-under 63 and a one-shot lead in the OHL Classic at Mayakoba.
McDowell relied on his strengths — hitting fairways and making putts — to close out the back nine with three straight birdies. After a bogey on No. 1, he bounced back with four straight birdies to take the lead in the morning at El Camaleon Golf Club.
No one caught him in the afternoon.
Derek Fathauer made four birdies over his last seven holes for a 66 to get within one shot of McDowell. PGA Tour rookie Harold Varner III birdied four of his last five holes for a 62 to join Si Woo Kim (64) two shots behind.
McDowell was at 12-under 130.
“The two biggest keys to the year have been the driver and putter, the two things that haven’t been performing this season and probably are my strengths,” McDowell said. “I drove the ball much, much better, and I putted just as good today as I did yesterday. I’m putting nicely and decisively. The hole looks pretty big right now.”
McDowell typically plays the European Tour this time of the year as it wraps up the Race to Dubai. But the 36-year-old from Northern Ireland had such a mediocre season that he returned to America to get a head start on the new PGA Tour season. So far, the decision is paying off.
He started the year at No. 15 in the world and has fallen all the way to No. 85. His best finish this year was a tie for ninth in the Dubai Desert Classic. McDowell has been grinding hard since June, and he has been seeing signs of it getting better.
“It’s the result of three or four months of grinding,” McDowell said. “I’m trying to play better. It’s been a frustrating year. That’s the game of golf we know and love. You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth.”
It’s been smooth sailing off the coast in Mexico. This is only his third 36-hole lead in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event, the others coming at the HSBC Champions last year and the U.S. Open that he won at Pebble Beach in 2010.
Shawn Stefani, the runner-up in Mexico last year, pulled within one shot of McDowell until a poor tee shot led to double bogey on No. 14 to slow his momentum. Stefani had to settle for a 68 and was in the group three shots behind along with Patrick Rodgers (66), Jason Bohn (63), Justin Leonard (68) and Brice Garnett (66).
Russell Knox of Scotland, who won the HSBC Champions last week in Shanghai, had a 65 and was five shots behind. Matt Kuchar, at No. 16 the highest-ranked player in the world at Mayakoba, had a 67 and was nine shots behind.
The only thing that stalled McDowell’s big birdie run was the opening hole, where a poor approach led to bogey. He started the tournament at No. 1 on Thursday and was lucky to make double bogey. His first tee shot went out-of-bounds and his next tee shot was even further right, though it ricocheted back into play.
“As I went down to get them, I figured I could be going home very soon,” McDowell said. “Today it was just a bad swing. I walked off with a 5. I’m trending in the right direction.”