GRAEME McDOWELL heaved a sigh of relief as he surged into the weekend at the French Open within reach of his third tournament victory in three months.
"It's nice for a change to see the ball doing what it's supposed to be doing and to make a cut," said the Portrush native after completing back-to-back rounds of 69 on the formidable 'Albatros' course at Le Golf National.
McDowell goes into the weekend in a tie for fifth place on four-under, two behind leader Fabrizio Zanotti of Paraguay, breaking a worrying sequence of three successive missed cuts, his longest stretch of lost weekends since 2007.
Indeed, since failing to make past 36 holes at the Masters, McDowell has endured a remarkable roller-coaster ride.
"I've been working very hard on my game the last couple of weeks," said the 33-year-old former US Open champion.
"It's been a rough couple of months. But this is a step in the right direction and I've positioned myself nicely going into the weekend.
"It's been all duck or no dinner for me so far this season, so it's very important right now to get my name onto a leaderboard. I wasn't really sure I was in a position to add an event next week if things hadn't gone my way here."
Naturally, McDowell needed to get his game in shape for the British Open on Thursday week and his efforts so far in France mean he can press ahead with plans to pay a valuable reconnaissance visit to Muirfield next week.
Though it lies just to the south west of Paris, the Albatros, venue for the 2018 Ryder Cup, played as hard, fast and fiery as a links yesterday and with its fairways bordered by deep fescue rough, it's serving as a decent warm-up for the season's third Major.
"This is a great golf course, not unlike the one we'll be facing in a fortnight's time," said McDowell, whose ambition to get back to winning ways showed when he admitted: "The juices will be flowing a little bit when I go out for the third round in the last couple of groups."
McDowell played sublimely early on yesterday but recent tension showed when he noisily thrust his club back into the bag after a couple of loose shots late on.
Still, his only dropped shot came at the par-four eighth, his penultimate hole, where McDowell was caught between clubs and, like playing partner Thomas Bjorn, made bogey out of a plugged lie in the front bunker.
Bjorn, who presses Darren Clarke closely for the title of moodiest player on Tour, was speechless after a bogey-bogey finish left him tied second on five-under with South African Richard Sterne and fellow Dane Soren Kjeldsen.
Lurgan native Gareth Shaw, who qualified for France with last Sunday's fabulous fifth place finish at the Irish Open, maintained his good form with a second round 69 which left him tied 18th on one-under through halfway in his seventh tournament in seven weeks.
Damien McGrane was in 26th on even-par after his one-over 72 yesterday, one stroke ahead of Michael Hoey (74). Gareth Maybin (73) was on two-over, while Tour rookie Alan Dunbar (75) snuck through the cut on the mark, three-over. Paul McGinley, Peter Lawrie and Simon Thornton have the weekend off.
Elsewhere, a faultless second-round 66 placed Cork's Peter O'Keeffe in 21st on six-under at the Bad Griesback Challenge in Germany, six behind leader Victor Riu of France. Niall Kearney was one shot back after yesterday's 71, while Stephen Grant shot 76 and missed the cut.
Former Ryder Cup star Philip Walton opened the Bad Ragaz PGA Seniors Open in Switzerland with an even-par 70 to lie six off the pace set by Gary Wolstenholme and Gary Luna with sizzling 64s. Denis O'Sullivan finished bogey-bogey for a 71, while Des Smyth recovered from back-to-back double-bogeys at the fourth and fifth holes for a 73. Eamonn Darcy shot 76.
Phil Mickelson broke par yesterday for the first time in three visits to the Greenbrier Classic with a two-under 68 but still missed the cut at Old White TPC for the third successive season, this time on two-over par.
A sizzling 62 propelled 30-year-old American Matt Every into the 36-hole lead on nine-under.
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