From Brian Keogh at Royal Birkdale
Ulster ace Graeme McDowell topped the Open charts for the second time in three years and roared: I'm ready to be a winner this time.
Just four days after sealing his Ryder Cup place with victory in the Scottish Open, McDowell dodged the worst o the weather to open with a sensational 69 and share a one-stroke lead with US Open hero Rocco Mediate and Aussie Robert Allenby on one-under par.
Two years ago he led at Hoylake after a first round 66 but faded to tied 61st as Tiger Woods scorched past him to win his third Open.
This time he wants to throw away the L-plates and prove that he's a Major player by winning the Claret Jug on Sunday night.
Recalling his last Open chance, McDowell said: "I felt like a rabbit in the headlights a couple of years ago at Hoylake. I was like, what's this all about?
"I certainly feel like quite a different player than I was then. I didn't really have a lot of belief in my game.
"It caught up with me on the weekend. Tiger left the field for dust, but I backed up a little bit on the weekend.
“But I've obviously been showing some form for the last 10 to 12 months, consistently stringing four rounds together.
"I've got a lot more belief in my game and what I am doing. I'm certainly a lot more comfortable in this position that I would have been two years ago."
One of the afternoon starters, McDowell agreed that he got the best of the horrific weather as he erased a bogey at the sixth with birdies at the last two holes.
And with Woods absent through injury this time, the Portrush man knows he has a golden opportunity to take advantage and follow in the footsteps of fellow Irishman Padraig Harrington.
Fortunate to get the best of the conditions, he said: "I sat at home this morning with my breakfast cereal and coffee going, ‘God, do I really have to go out there this afternoon?’
“Obviously we got pretty lucky. It’s not often the afternoon tee time in the Open is a good draw but the guys out there earlier had it even tougher than we did.
"It was amazing, the 25 to 30 mph crosswinds. It is really hard to acclimatise your game to that kind of crosswind. But without having to putt the eyes out of it, I got it round in one-under par. I'm pretty content with that one."
Now 28, McDowell can hardly remember how he felt at Hoylake, where he opened with a 66 to lead by a shot from Woods but then went 73-72-79 to finish near the back of the field.
That time, the course was rock hard in summer sunshine, but yesterday he fed on his links roots in Portrush and defied a three-club wind to leave all but two players in the 156-man field trailing.
McDowell said: "I'd rate this one probably a little better than Hoylake. I was so happy with the way I controlled my ball in tough conditions out there.”
As for the lack of Tiger factor, McDowell conceded that he now has an even better chance of winning his first Major.
And he also feels physically ready to go the full distance this year, despite the fact that he is playing his fifth event on the trot.
Smiling, he said: "The Tiger effect goes without saying. Not having him in the field is a major boost to everyone, apart from the fans.
"Physically I feel pretty good and mentally I feel good too, which is a surprise considering this is my fifth week in a row.
"Fingers crossed that I keep things going this weekend. To be honest I feel unbelievably fresh. I don't feel like I'm running on adrenaline."