Damien McGrane on the third at Celtic Manor. Picture: Fran Caffrey/ www.golffile.ie Defending champion Graeme McDowell enjoyed a successful return to Celtic Manor as he matched Damien McGrane’s 67 to share sixth place in the Saab Wales Open.

The US Open champion’s steady, four under par effort left him three shots behind South African Keith Horne on his first visit to the course since his Ryder Cup winning heroics last October.

Horne shot a seven under 64 to lead by a stroke from Ryder Cup player Peter Hanson, who played alongside McDowell as they relived memories of Europe’s triumph.

McDowell holed a 15 footer on the 16th to set up a match winning victory over Hunter Mahan in the final game on that memorable Monday last autumn. But while he only managed a par there on Thursday after missing from 20 feet, he was reasonably happy with his opening effort as he counts down to his US Open defence

“It’s all simmering nicely,” he said of a round that was highlighted by an eagle two from 30 feet at the driveable 15th. “I need to get into the mix this weekend and get the old juices flowing again.”

McDowell didn’t putt well at Wentworth last week and missed the cut. But he sees no connection between his putting at the Burma Road course and his poor putting at Augusta, where he also missed the cut.

“I feel like I’ve become a good fast green putter and a really bad slow green putter. I used to be a good slow green putter and a bad fast green putter. When I lose my speed, when I lose my feel, speed’s the key, really. I’m a pretty good greens reader in general.

“Speed, I’ve got back to just working hard on my speed drills again and putted beautiful at The Players. Putted pretty well at the Volvo World Match Play. Putted horrifically at Wentworth last week. The greens were particularly slow there and I just couldn’t get the feel for them.

“I putted okay this morning. I was happy with my speed, that was the main thing this morning. The greens tend to break a little bit more than they seem. There’s a lot of grass on them. The grass is quite sticky here, as well, but my speed was good. I was happy with that.”

Graeme McDowell laments a missed putt on the 17th. [Click to enlarge] Picture: Fran Caffrey/ www.golffile.ieMcDowell arrived at Pebble Beach on the Sunday before the US Open last year. But he’s already seen Congressional and plans to spend next week “wearing a groove” on his mother’s couch in Portrush working with his coach Pete Cowen in Orlando.

McGrane didn’t try to qualify for the US Open at Walton Heath on Monday but was happy to make six birdies in 67 that could kick-start a slow season for the Kells man.

Ranked 103rd in the Order of Merit, the 40 year old Meath player has missed had just one top -10 and missed five cuts from 14 starts this term.

“I played steady from start to finish and when I got it a little bit wrong out there I managed to get up and down which held my score together, which is what you have to do out there,” he said. “There conditions are good and the greens are soft so it is possible to give yourself a lot of birdie chances. Needless to say, you have got to get the ball in the hole also.”

McGrane almost matched McDowell’s eagle on the 15th but missed a 12 footer there.

“The tee shot was my shot of the day but unfortunately the ball didn’t fall into the hole for an eagle,” said. “It’s about just building on a score and building on birdies.”

Shane Lowry didn’t manage even one birdie in a frustrating one over par 72.

The Clara man came into the event on a hot streak of form after finishing fourth in the BMW PGA at Wentworth and then earning his US Open debut by finishing second in Sectional Qualifying on Monday.

Fancied by many tipsters to win his first event as a professional this week, he went out late in the day on soft, bumpy greens and carding 17 straight pars before finishing with a disappointing bogey six at the 18th.

“Well that was one of the most frustrating days ever on the course,” Lowry tweeted. “Lookin forward to gettin out on some decent greens in the morning.”

As for this year’s Irish winners, Darren Clarke closed with two birdies for a three under par 68 as Michael Hoey followed two front nine birdies with two bogeys on the back nine for a level par 71.

Glasson’s Colm Moriaty, who is playing thanks to his top 10 finish behind winner Hoey in Madeira two weeks ago, had two birdies and three bogeys in a 72 to share 66th place with Lowry on one over.