Graeme McDowell underlined his status as a golfing grandmaster when he combined chess like precision with some good old fashioned scrambling to open with an impeccable, three under par 68 in the Andalucia Valderrama Masters.
The Ulsterman is not the US Open champion for nothing and while it is asking a great deal to close a gap of nearly €1m on Race to Dubai leader and potential world No 1 Martin Kaymer over the closing five events of the season, he’s certainly not going to go down without a fight.
Thursday’s opening effort, which he crowned with a glorious birdie three at the 18th, left him tied for second with that arch-grinder Damien McGrane and just two strokes adrift of Spain’s Pablo Larrazábal, who cruised to a late 66 to snatch the outright lead.
Kaymer struggled on the back nine in McDowell’s company and did well to card a 72 that he insists is “not the end of the world.”
As McDowell pointed out afterwards: “This is a tough golf course and hard work and you have to realise that at some point you are going to hit it out of position and you are going to have to scramble.
“I kept the ball under control for most of the day and scrambled when I had to. The back nine was pretty good, I positioned the ball well off the tee and hit some good iron shots and the 18th was a prime example. You hit the perfect tee shot and yet are still five yards from being stymied behind a tree.
“This is one of the toughest par tests in Europe and it was particularly pleasing to go around out there without a bogey. It was three under par and it could have been better but I’ll take it here any time.
“Being four ahead of Martin doesn’t mean a whole lot because it’s early days yet. It’s a marathon this week-end because this golf course can beat you up. We’ll all hit it out of position at some stage and you’ve just got to try and keep your head screwed on.”
As for his hopes of overtaking Kaymer and becoming European No 1, McDowell showed huge respect to the German.
“Martin’s the guy I’m trying to catch in the Race to Dubai and he’s having a magnificent season and especially in the last few months when he’s been unbeatable,” he said. “It’s great to play alongside him because you always want to play with the best. He’s a top, top player and it’s great for the European Tour to have guys like him winning golf tournaments.”
McGrane also birdied the last for a bogey free 68 while Gareth Maybin, a tenuous 60th in the Race to Dubai, hit a fine 69 to put himself in position to ensure his presence in next month’s Dubai World Championship.
Maybin is tied for fourth while fellow Ulsterman Michael Hoey is also inside the top 10 after a 70.
In-form Peter Lawrie is certain to be in Dubai but having started with three straight birdies to take the early lead, the Dubliner bogeyed the par-five fourth and followed a birdie at the 10th with double bogeys at the 14th and 17th for a 72.
That left him alongside an inconsistent Darren Clarke, who had five birdies and six bogeys in his 72.
Shane Lowry shot a 73 and Paul McGinley a 74, which leaves them with work to do to make the top 50 and ties who will make the cut on Friday evening.