McDowell embroiders Portrush selection by making fine start

Graeme McDowell, of Northern Ireland, watches his tee shot on the second hole during the first  round of the U.S. Open golf tournament in Pinehurst.
Graeme McDowell, of Northern Ireland, watches his tee shot on the second hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament in Pinehurst.
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Graeme McDowell celebrated confirmation of the Open Championship’s return to his home course of Portrush by claiming a share of the clubhouse lead in the US Open yesterday.

Sheffield amateur Matt Fitzpatrick also enjoyed his day, briefly holding a share of the lead after starting with two birdies in his first three holes.

The 19-year-old eventually signed for a 71, one better than playing partner and defending champion Justin Rose.

Former champion Rory McIlroy was alongside Fitzpatrick on one over.

McDowell fired an eagle, one birdie and one bogey to shoot an opening 68 at Pinehurst, joining American Kevin Na at the top of the leaderboard on two under par.

Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who can overtake Adam Scott as world No 1 by claiming his first major title on Sunday, was among a six-strong group in the clubhouse on one under as the early starters made the most of more receptive greens than had been expected.

And six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson, looking to become only the sixth player to win all four major titles, was another shot back on level par alongside England’s Ian Poulter and Ryder Cup hopeful Joost Luiten.

McDowell admitted the early starters had enjoyed the luck of the draw, and the decision of tournament officials to water the course after the expected rain failed to materialise.

“I spent the last few days just preparing myself mentally for the challenge, knowing that this golf course wasn’t going to give much and it was only going to take,” said 2010 champion McDowell.

“I really felt like I got my head in the right place the last few days.

“It wasn’t my best ball-striking display, but you don’t have to strike it amazing around here, you just have to position the ball correctly at all times, and with a tiny bit more moisture (during the morning) we got lucky.

“In practice (on Wednesday) the golf course seemed to be very firm, kind of a weekend set-up. I guess the USGA were really relying on some rain (on Wednesday night) which didn’t come.

“I’m assuming they put some water on this place (yesterday morning) and we were able to take advantage of that a little bit early on, and actually think about getting at some of those flags.”

Speaking about the Open Championship returning to Portrush in 2019 – it was last staged there in 1951 – McDowell, whose brother Gary is on the greenkeeping staff at the club, added: “I’ve been kind of hesitant to comment because I really didn’t want to take anything away from the official announcement (the R&A are to hold a press conference in Portrush on Monday).

“I’m very proud of where I grew up. I’m very proud of the tradition and history there and to bring an Open Championship back to Northern Ireland is very special. It speaks volumes about how far the country has come. It’s going to be a very special thing for Northern Ireland and Ireland in general. I just hope I’m exempt and playing well.

“It’s been a dream of mine as a kid. I’ve spent many an hour out there as a kid and dreaming of playing major championships.

“To have a major championship come to Portrush, (especially) the Open Championship is special stuff.

“It’s the result of a lot of gentle ribbing in the direction of Mr Dawson (R&A chief executive Peter Dawson) the last four or five years from myself and (Rory) McIlroy and (Darren) Clarke,” he added.

“Nice to see the fruits of our labour, I suppose.”

Rickie Fowler paid tribute to the late Payne Stewart yesterday, wearing his idol’s trademark plus fours for the opening round of the US Open.

Stewart won his third major title in the 1999 US Open at Pinehurst, but died just a few months later at the age of 42 when the private plane in which he was travelling depressurised and eventually crashed in a field in South Dakota.

“Payne was one of my all-time favourite players,” Fowler said after an opening round of 70.

“I never had a chance of meeting him, but obviously loved watching him play and loved how he handled himself on and off the golf course.

“It’s cool to be in the position I’m in to wear some attire like he used to wear, to give tribute to him.”

Fowler was just 10 years old when Stewart died, but remembers the par putt he holed on the 72nd hole to beat Phil Mickelson by a shot, the first of Mickelson’s record six runners-up finishes.

“I think everyone remembers Payne’s putt on 18. That’s what you think about,” Fowler added.

“But there’s a few points that I can look back and remember exactly where I was and what I was doing and what was going on, and one of those is when the plane crash happened.”