Graeme McDowell and caddie Ken Comboy at Valderrama last week. Picture/www.golffile.ieGraeme McDowell took an important step on the road to recovery from what he called “one of the more embarrassing weekends I’ve ever had in my golf career” by opening with a gutsy, three under 69 in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

After shooting successive rounds of 81 and 82 at Valderrama to finish 31 strokes behind Sergio Garcia in the Andalucia Masters last weekend, McDowell could have been forgiven for heading back to Orlando for some winter R&R instead on embarking on a five week-run in Asia and South Africa.

Enticed by golf’s promise of a new dawn every Thursday, McDowell worked on his game with Pete Cowe and raced to four under through seven holes  before suddenly finding himself back where he started when he tripled the 17th, his eighth, and then bogeyed the first.

After admitting to “throwing in the towel” over the final 27 holes in Spain, he did the opposite in China and finished strongly with birdies at the second, third and fifth to end the day four shots behind “PGA Tour Player of the Year” contender and US PGA champion Keegan Bradley, who shot a brilliant 65.

“Last weekend at Valderrama was probably one of the more embarrassing weekends I’ve ever had in my golf career, and Valderrama can do that to you. I threw the towel in a little bit the last 27 holes, and like I say it was embarrassing for me.

“I had a long time to think about it coming over here. In the back of my mind, my game is not that far away. I had some good time with Pete on Tuesday and really got my control back a little bit.   And it was nice to go out there today and make some birdies. We know this is a game of confidence. 81, 82 on the weekend doesn’t do much for one’s confidence. So nice to play well today and like I said, try to stake some steps forward and hopefully compete this weekend and take some MoJo into the rest of the schedule.”

McDowell knew that capping a career year was always going to be complicated and proved it by missing the cut in three of the four majors. But as he pointed out, he had at least two great chances to win with Sawgrass and St Andrews springing readily to mind.

“The lows have felt low this year but they really shouldn’t, if I look back at last year and the highs were very high last year and the lows shouldn’t feel that bad. That’s the thing about this game, we often don’t give ourselves credit when credit is due, but we are pretty good at beating ourselves up. I think if you asked every player in this field, if they would be better at beating themselves up or giving themselves credit, they would agree with me.    

“We are all very good at punching ourselves when we are down. That’s the game. We love it and we hate it, it’s a bit of a love hate relationship and last year was certainly a love relationship. Like I say I have a good team around me who keep it real for me. And I’ve enjoyed the process, as well.”

Asked what he had learnt this year following a 2010 campaign that saw count the US Open among four wins and a Ryder Cup winning performance at Celtic Manor, McDowell said:

“Learning how to handle being a Major Champion, leading the players championship by two shots going into the last round, knowing I can get it around that golf course, and hitting it as well as I did at Congressional and the U.S. Open.   I could have easily won twice this year. Like I say, leading THE PLAYERS Championship — I’ve had my chances this year. That’s what this game can do to you sometimes.”

Apart from his own high expectations, McDowell’s biggest problem has been his inability to shape the ball at will this year.

“I knew that last week at Valderrama, I could not aim for the right side of the golf course because I couldn’t rely on my draw and I couldn’t aim at the left side of the golf course because I had no fade. So I had no shot in the bag. And that’s how I had to play golf last week —and I couldn’t make a putt either.    

“I haven’t controlled the golf ball like I controlled it last year, and when I say control, I mean, aiming at a target. I’ve been able to shape it off that target. That’s what I did great last year and that’s what I haven’t done well this year. I really —the range session I had with Pete on Tuesday reminded me a lot of the range sessions we had last year. There are reasons I haven’t been able to do that this year and for the first time on Tuesday, I really felt my old self come back a little bit again.

“Like I say, starting line —I didn’t have that at all last week at Valderrama. Specifically just working on how I shape the ball. I felt like the last couple of months I’ve been working on trying to hit a perfectly straight golf shot. As soon as you get on the golf course, you realise it’s — you aim at the left side of the fairways and right side of the greens and trying to hit draws and fades and moving the ball around. That’s what I did well last year. I’ve always been a person who shapes the ball around.”

The triple bogey at the 17th could have derailed McDowell completely but he was understandably proud of the way he came back to end the day tied for ninth.

“On 17, par 3, just tried to squeeze a 5-wood in there and just blocked it. Straight in the hazard. Had 30 feet, so tripled there. Bogeyed the first, back to level par after all the hard work. Very happy with the way I battled back and made a few birdies.  Seven birdies today on this golf course, pretty happy with that. Struck the ball well. Controlled my starting lines a bit better today which I didn’t do well that week.”

McDowell has no problem admitting that his temperature gauge seriously overheated this year:

“For sure, I’ve been angrier this year with myself because I want it too much. We are all guilty I of wanting it too badly sometimes. This game has beat me up this year, there’s no doubt about it. But trying to get back to believing in myself and enjoying myself a little bit. But it’s hard because you’re trying to prove things and you’re trying to emulate last year.”

Bradley leads by two from Bo Van Pelt, Freddie Jacobson and Alex Noren with Rory McIlroy tied 19th on two under after a 70 that required two birdies in his last four.

“I feel as if I left a lot of shots out there,” McIlroy said. “It could have been a lot lower but 70 isn’t a disastrous start and something I can definitely build on.”

Darren Clarke shot a one over 73 while debutant Michael Hoey signed for a four over 76.