Graeme McDowell is wary of the “sleeping giant” that is Royal Lytham despite taking advantage of benign early conditions to shoot a three under 67 and lurk just three shots off the lead.
The 2010 US Open champion was four under with four to play but quickly dismissed the notion that the famous old links is an easy touch were sandwiched bogeys at the 15th and 18th with a birdie at the 16th and an adventurous par-save at the 17th.
McDowell said: “After all the chat about conditions and how difficult this golf course is and how much rain is there going to be, how much wind is there going to be, it was kind of weird standing out there on about the ninth tee box looking around in a shirt sleeves at guys being four, five and six under par. It was a pretty benign start to the week.
“I’m in no illusion that this golf course has teeth, though, and put a bit of a breeze across this course and it could be a sleeping giant for sure. But with benign conditions this morning it was good to take advantage of them.”
The 32-year old Ulsterman played beautifully for most of the day, holing a 35 footer from the apron of the third to dip under par before handing that shot back at the tough sixth - a par-five converted into a par four - where he found greenside sand and lipped out from seven feet for par.
But he hit back with three birdies in a row from the seventh, following a12 footer at the eighth with a superb eight iron tee shot that came up just inches short of a hole-in-one at the 165-yard ninth
However, after holing from five feet for another birdie at the par-five 11th to get to four under, McDowell found the tough finishing stretch to be tougher than a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle.
Forced to slash his way up the fairway from rough right of the 14th, he got up and down with a pitch and putt for his par but failed to repeat the feet from greenside sand at the 15th and slipped back to three under.
A monster 30 foot birdie putt at the 16th got him back on track but after making a fine two-putt par from the front of the 17th, where he was so far right off the tee he needed line of sight relief, he bunkered his two-iron tee shot at the sand-strewn 18th and bogeyed.
“It really is a game of two halves, this golf course,” McDowell said. “You turn back into this back nine and it’s a stiff test, there’s no doubt about it.
“I hit it a little scrappy coming in, but all in all really, really happy with three-under par. I’d have paid a few quid for that on the first tee this morning.
“I felt really good. I’ve played in plenty of these things to learn that you’ve got to enjoy them, you’ve got to try to enjoy them. Let’s be honest, if you don’t play well, it’s hard to enjoy them.
“You’ve got to get in a relaxed frame of mind, get your attitude kind of correct for the day and accept that you’re going to make mistakes. I did that well today, and I reacted well to my mistakes, generally. That’s all you can ask for.
“All I’ve got to do is keep hanging around, hanging around and see if I can be talking to you guys Saturday night and saying good things and getting ready for a big Sunday afternoon. There are 54 holes left of a tough tournament with a golf course that is a sleeping giant and obviously conditions and the weather are going to play a huge part of it this weekend.
“We got the nice side of it this morning, but I’ve got to get ready for tomorrow afternoon. I’ve got a little bit of work to do on my full swing, I wasn’t really in 100 per cent in control of it today, but we’ll be ready for tomorrow.
“There’s no reason why I shouldn’t challenge, but I’ve got a lot of work to do to do so. I do like the way this golf course sets up. I like the challenge that it presents, and I love the way the greens look.
“I rolled the ball well today and that was key today. I really putted good. And you always have to do that in links golf.
“You’ve got to speed putt well and you’ve got to take your chances when they come. And I did that well today. I can hit the ball better than I did this morning, but a little bit of work and we’ll be ready tomorrow morning.”
McDowell found the closing stretch tough to fathom in practice and agreed that the course is “a conundrum.”
“It really describes the whole golf course,” he said. “Every tee shot is a conundrum. There are so many ways to play this course, and there’s so many ways to not play it, if you know what I’m saying.”
“The 14th, especially, is one, is a tee shot that doesn’t fit my eye very well. I said I was going to play it very conservative, and today I took three-wood out and whipped it in the right rough.
“The 15th is a really, really difficult tee shot because there’s no way to take all of the bunkers out of play. You’ve just got to stand there and hit it down the middle.
“The 17th is slightly more straightforward. And the 18th is a real tough tee shot. There’s no doubt about it, it’s a jigsaw puzzle down there, and you’ve got to position it in one of the jigsaw pieces.”
Asked if he was good at jigsaws, McDowell beamed: “I hope so.”
Recalling how he’d compared the challenge to a chess game in the build up, he said: “It was chess yesterday and jigsaw today. I’m obviously a very exciting young fellow. Chess and jigsaws, that’s me.”