McDowell, looking ahead, delivers a solid opening round

McDowell, looking ahead, delivers a solid opening round

BETHESDA, Md. — Take a deep breath and relax, Graeme McDowell, you no longer have to talk about Pebble Beach every minute of every day.

It was with huge relief that the 2010 U.S. Open champion teed off in the 111th U.S. Open. McDowell shot a one-under-par 70 and was delighted with his form.

“I feel like I’ve spent the last three months talking about Pebble and defending my Open,” he said. “Coming here this week, I had done all the talking and was ready to move forward, to start talking about the future rather than the past. I set myself some challenges: to be patient and enjoy the round.”

Mission accomplished.

But the opening hole wasn’t quite what McDowell had visualized over breakfast. He drove into a fairway bunker at the first, then slapped his approach into a greenside bunker. Bogey. No need to panic though. Birdie at the par-3 second got him back on track. McDowell soon found his groove with the driver and didn’t miss another fairway on the, ahem, easier front nine at Congressional.

“I kept it in play well today,” McDowell said. “I played smart golf. My iron play could have been better but, all in all, very happy. This is probably the best I’ve felt in months. I feel like I’m opening a new chapter for the rest of my career.”

McDowell has struggled this year, posting scores of 79, 80 and 81, but he said a weight had been lifted off his shoulders when he arrived at Congressional on Monday. Now, he can return to the kind of gutsy, grinding golf the U.S. Open favors.

McDowell played with the reigning British Open champion, Louis Oosthuizen, so there was some symbolism when McDowell laid up at the 636-yard, par-5 ninth and his ball came to a stop kissing Oosthuizen’s ball.

“Never ever seen that before,” McDowell said. The Northern Irishman had to move his ball one club’s length to the right. From there, he set up a 13-foot birdie chance, but his putt slid by the hole. He gritted his teeth in anguish. Opportunity missed, and he knew it. Time to hang on to his one-under-par score on the beastly back nine.

The 10th is a 218-yard par 3 over water and into the wind. The tee box sits in front of Congressional’s enormous Spanish-style clubhouse with a red-tiled roof and whitewashed walls. The lawn is the place to watch the world’s finest golfers come through. As the players checked their yardage books and tried to convince their brains that the water wasn’t really there, the VIPs and Beautiful People sipped cocktails and looked on from their picnic tables, while the unmistakable aroma of the members’ barbecue wafted on the breeze.

McDowell’s tee shot fizzed straight at the flag — and kept fizzing until it fizzled out into the bunker at the back of the green. Groans from the early lunchers on the lawn and from those sprawled on the grassy bank behind the green. McDowell was now faced with a sand shot downhill to the hole with the water waiting beyond the flag. Terrifying? Piece of cake for McDowell. He attacked his ball from a steep angle and battered it like John Henry with his hammer. The ball popped out on a cushion of sand. Tap-in par.

Eight more pars followed. Just the start he was looking for after that shaky opening hole. “The 10th is the only slightly unfair hole out here,” McDowell said after his round. “I had to sizzle a 5-iron. A 4-iron would have been too much. I know they’ve had a wet spring here. They’ve obviously taken this golf course to the edge to try to dry it as much as they can. They’re doing a job at the minute.”

Oosthuizen signed for a two-under-par 69. It has been almost a year since the South African known as “Shrek” (for the gap between his front teeth) won the British Open, and still few people can pronounce his name properly. The announcer on the first tee took a decent stab at it but still sounded like he was sneezing.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to get my surname right,” Oosthuizen said. “I don’t mind it. It’s easier to say Shrek than Oosthuizen.”