McDowell off to flyer as putting woes continue for McIlroy
Patience was key as Graeme McDowell upstaged Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods with a grinding 69 in the Genesis Open at a firm and fast Riviera.
A lowly 219th in the world, winless since 2015, and coming off three successive missed cuts, the 2010 US Open champion (38) knows he must wait for his moment to come to him as he seeks a return to golf's top table.
Patience is something McIlroy admits he needs to learn, especially on the west coast's treacherously fast and bumpy poa annua greens
"It is more of a mental test than anything else," McIlroy said of the greens after shooting a level par 71 to Woods' 72 and a 69 by Justin Thomas.
"I didn't pass that mental test last week at Pebble, so I am trying to stay a little more patient this week.
"I hit some putts I thought we going in today that didn't quite, but at least I am hitting good putts so that's a positive."
After holing a bunker shot for an unlikely opening birdie at the driveable 10th and a 28-foot slider for eagle at his 10th to make up for "scrappy" bogeys at the 11th, 12th and 17th, he was pleased enough to trail early leaders Tom Hoge, Dominic Bozzelli and Sam Saunders by just four shots.
"It should have been a couple of shots better but even par out there, it's a little tricky with the breeze, I am still in a decent position after today.
"I played a lot better on the front nine (his back) and gave myself a lot more chances. I didn't birdie any but I hung in there and even par is probably a fair reflection."
Thomas shot a 69 to sit alongside McDowell on two-under as Woods battled back from two-over after three holes to post a 72.
"His game looks good," McIlroy said. "If his body enables him to do what he wants to do, it's going to be an exciting year."
Pádraig Harrington eagled the first but had to settle for a level par 71 as Shane Lowry hit just five fairways and shot 73 having cracked the face of his favourite driver last week
"I can imagine how tough this course would be with some rough as well," McDowell said after he went out in three-under 32 and dropped just one shot coming home.
Woods agreed after mixing five birdies and four bogeys and a double-bogey seven at his second hole, the 11th, where he lost a wild drive in a eucalyptus tree.
"It's playing tough," said the 14-time major champion after hitting just seven greens. "The greens are firming up, and that first hop is amazing, especially coming downwind. But I fought back."
McDowell desperately needs a good week to boost his confidence, and he's confident it will come.
"I feel like I turned the corner about six months ago," he said. "I really feel like I am ready to have some big tournaments.
"But in this game, you have to stay patient. You can't force it. And you can't want it. And you can't need it. I am trying to be really patient."
He got off to a lovely start, two-putting comfortably for birdie at the first before chipping in from 50 feet for a two at the 230-yard fourth.
He then saved par from eight feet at the fifth, rolled in a 12 footer for a birdie at the seventh and followed a lone bogey at the 13th with five closing pars.
As for McIlroy, the Holywood star managed to avoid three-putting but got little reward for some great ball striking.
Apart from that curling 28 footer for eagle, the longest putt he holed as a four-and-a-half footer for par at his 12th.
"Tiger was hitting after me, and I said, 'I've finally found my range'," he said of his three at the first. "I'd missed a few from inside that before. So it was nice to get back to level."
Harrington started by rapping in a 47-footer for eagle at the first but while he birdied the 10th, dropped shots at the fourth, ninth and 15th saw him finish alongside McIlroy with a 71.
- Genesis Open, Live, Sky Sports Golf, 7.0pm
- NBO Oman Open, Live, Sky Sports Golf, 6.30am