Graeme McDowell may have the game to compete with Tiger Woods but he needed all his famous fighting qualities just to keep the world No 2 in his sights at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. As for Justin Rose, the Englishman was simply in another league on the greens.
As Woods ground out a three under 69 to keep alive his hopes of winning at Bay Hill for the eighth time and stealing back the world No 1 ranking from the absent Rory McIlroy, McDowell escaped with an opening 72 as Ryder Cup team mate Rose excelled with a classy, seven under 65.
The Portrush man said earlier this year that he had worked hard on his short game and putting during his long winter break. It certainly showed on the course where he was second to Woods last year. In fact, had it not been for his failure to get up and down from bunkers late in his round, he could have carded a 68.
While he had 30 putts, six of them were crucial par-saving efforts that averted what could have been a tournament ending score for the 33-year old former US Open champion.
McDowell didn’t hit his first green in regulation until the 15th hole - his sixth of the day - and while he steadied the ship and eventually hit 10 of 14 fairways, he still managed to shoot level par despite hitting just half the greens in regulation.
Starting on the 10th on a cool, crisp Florida morning, McDowell got up and down for pars at his first three holes, holing putts of four, nine and 14 feet respectively after finding fairway bunkers at the 10th and par-five 12th and greenside sand at the 11th
He did well not to three-putt the 13th, hoing a six footer for par there after running his 37 foot birdie try past the hole.
And he was again forced to scramble at the long, par-three 14th, where he missed the green and had to hole a 17 footer just to remain at level par.
He made his first birdie of the day at the par-five 16th, knocking in a seven footer, before showing his improved bunker skills at the 18th by getting up and down for another par courtesy of a 20 yard sand shot to five feet and another solid putt.
The homeward journey was a similar mixed bag as he mixed long distance two-putts for pars with some excellent scrambling until the battle became too much.
While holed a 16 footer for par at the short second to remain at one under, he couldn’t get up and down for birdie from greenside sand for birdie at the par-five sixth or for par at the short seventh after another loose iron shot.
He ended the day tied for 40th as Rose took the course apart, firing an eagle three, six birdies and just one bogey in a 65 to lead by two strokes from John Huh on seven under.
Woods, who must win to overtake McIlroy at the top of the world rankings, was only happy with his score (69) as he finished his day in a 10-man logjam for fifth place on three under.
“It’s just making a key save, a key putt here and there and keeping the round going,” Woods said. “I certainly didn’t play my best, but I got around and made a few good saves out there. I got a lot out of this round, and I threw away a few shots as well.”