By Brian Keogh
Go-getter Graeme McDowell stormed into lead at the Volvo Masters for the second year on the trot.
And after fading to finish 32nd last term, he determined to finish the job at wind-lashed Valderrama this time around.
Two birdies in the last three holes helped the Ulsterman, 28, card a three under par 68 and lead by a shot from Paul McGinley in the race for the €666,660 top prize.
Describing the course as a “brutal” test, McDowell reckons he is close to his best again after losing his PGA Tour card last year.
And he can’t wait to show the world how good he can be after carding six birdies and three bogeys in a gruelling opening effort.
Happy that he is back on track with his game, McDowell said: “I have had a couple of frustrating years and I was very disappointed with my game and the way I was going about things. But I feel like I am the way back again.
“I am rededicating myself and I am working harder and the future feels bright. I am enjoying the game again.
A winner in just his fourth event on tour in 2002, McDowell won again in 2004 and made the move to the US for the 2006 season.
But it proved to be a disaster as he lost his card and crashed out of the world’s top 100.
This year he changed coach and caddie and set his sights on playing his way onto Nick Faldo’s Ryder Cup team for Valhalla next year.
Reflecting on what went wrong, he said: “I’ve probably been a victim of things happening too quickly in my career. When things happen fast you’ve got to be disciplined and reset your targets and your goals.
“I don’t know what I was thinking by taking my PGA Tour card in a Ryder Cup year. Maybe that was a bad move.
“Last year I felt that my game had stagnated. I asked myself the question, why am I not getting any better?
“I love winning tournaments and team competitions and while I could just knock it around and make €500,000 a year and make a great living, that is not what does it for me.
“I want to play in majors and the best tournaments in the world and I want to have a chance to win them. I want to get better and I want to get fitter.”
Winning the Volvo Masters would be a massive step towards getting back into the world’s elite and the Ryder Cup team.
But after crashing back into the pack last year, McDowell is wary of Valderrama’s dangers.
He said: “I shot four under in the first round last year and did nothing with it. But I think golf course is the nearest we get to major style golf. It takes major experience to win here.
“You are going to take double bogey somewhere and you have to be very accepting. It is going to be a really tough grind this week.
“It is brutal out there. There are bogeys waiting around every corner - and doubles - if you are not smart.
“I would take level par and not hit another shot this week. If it keeps blowing like this no one will break par.
“They have a US Open style golf course on their hands here and they could have us shooting ten over par if they wanted, never mind even.”