McDowell in positive mood for Major task
THE dawn of US Open week at Congressional Country Club yesterday brought with it bright rays of hope for defending champion Graeme McDowell as he battles to recover the form that made him a world-beater in 2010.
The glorious, tree-lined Blue Course at Congressional was bathed in blazing sunshine yesterday morning as McDowell and US Open rookie Shane Lowry embarked on their first practice round of a week, which both men will forever remember.
For Lowry (24), the Clara man who sensationally won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009, the 111th US Open is an opportunity to test his ever-developing professional prowess in the most intimidating of golf's four Major championships.
Though he was perfect company for Lowry as his young fellow Irishman took his first steps into unfamiliar territory, McDowell faces by far the more formidable challenge this week as he tries to honour the title he won at Pebble Beach last June.
The Portrush man has had quite a fraught time on the golf course in recent months, but McDowell and his coach expressed confidence yesterday that the three days of intensive hard work they put in last weekend on the range at the Lake Nona resort in Orlando has resolved a minor glitch in his swing.
This is in marked contrast to his build-up to Pebble Beach when McDowell, buoyed by his meteoric victory a week earlier at Celtic Manor, spent the Sunday before the US Open playing a wonderfully laid-back practice round on California's world-famous oceanside links.
What a difference a year and four missed cuts in eight tournaments can make ... yet it pales alongside the change McDowell has noted in the Blue Course at Congressional since he first played the course last month.
Taken aback by the severity of the course on that occasion, McDowell suggested "nobody would break par" over 72 holes on such a monster.
However, he was pleasantly surprised yesterday by how much the complexion of the course had changed and was distinctly upbeat about the positive effect this will have on his own prospects this week.
"I'm starting to realise over the last three or four years that you are wasting your time coming to a Major championship venue even a week or before the tournament takes place," he explained. "The golf course is nothing close to what you're going to see in the tournament itself. You really only benefit from playing it beforehand if it's a golf course you've never seen before and you want to have a look at it. Otherwise, you're wasting your time with the way it's going to play yardage-wise and round the greens.
"Coming here today, the golf course is playing at least 10pc shorter, maybe 20pc shorter," he added. "It's a great set-up and the first four or five yards of rough are quite fair as we've seen with the lies we've had today.
"The fairways are reasonably firm and the greens look like they could get ultra firm. Though thunderstorms are forecast, these things could be like rocks by the end of the week.
"It is mainly a pretty fair golf course," McDowell continued. "With the layout of the greens, you just can't go long -- long is dead. You've got to keep it below the pin and on the front portions of the green.
"The bunkers are quite unusual, they've a lot of sand in them and balls will get plugged, which will bring another dimension to it. It's like Bay Hill all over again.
"Yet it's a great golf course and I really like it. It's different from what I saw six or seven weeks ago and I feel better about that," he enthused. "It's much more playable in terms of length.
"I love the aesthetics of this place. It's just beautiful, a classic, tree-lined golf course and the clubhouse is brilliant," said McDowell, who believes the race for the US Open title this week is "wide open".
"It's a tricky driving course as the fairways are quite narrow in key places. You've got to control your irons well. Length is not an issue so it's wide open. The winner is going to be someone who is smart at flighting their irons into the greens and then chips and putts well after that."
Congressional has changed much since it hosted this championship in 1964 and 1997 but its formidable reputation is undiminished ... so it was intriguing to follow Lowry yesterday as the Offalyman strode onto this daunting stage for the first time.
Lowry rose to the challenge well, showing the deftness of his short game out of deep greenside rough and sand. He's been known to describe bunkers as 'my playground' and the youngster certainly appeared to be having fun yesterday.
His first day at golf's hardest 'school' was best summed up by Lowry's performance on the 579-yard, par-five 16th hole. After hitting his tee shot a good 300 yards into the heart of the fairway, Lowry missed the green way right with his four-iron.
Sixteen is one of those holes at Congressional with shaved run-off areas around the green and Lowry's ball sped deep into the pine needles behind the 17th tee. He was equal to it, hitting a sweet wedge shot into the bank and onto the elevated putting surface.
Lowry is driving the ball well enough to fulfil the primary objective of any of this week's US Open hopefuls and consistently hit his ball into the fairway. Meanwhile, his touch around the greens will stand him in good stead, as long as he zones in with the difficult long to mid-iron approach shots he'll be required to play.
Overall, he took his first taste of the action at the US Open well within his stride. "It's a nice enough course," he said with a smile. "I just rolled up here this morning and did my own thing. That's the way I am lads, easy-going."