Win or lose the Alstom Open de France near Paris today, Graeme McDowell will turn up at Muirfield for The Open as one of the men to beat.
Yes, we’ve been here before but the US Open at Merion turned out to be a disaster for the Portrush man. Heavy rain - not to mention a miscalculation in his schedule - ruined what was meant to be a carefully choreographed build up.
It was the second of a run of three missed cuts in a row that has given McDowell a mid-season wake up call that hardly seemed warranted given that he has won twice already this year.
Always learning, it appears that he needs the occasional reminder that despite his vaunted status in the game, he can’t just turn it on at the flick of a switch but needs the tension of competition and the fear of the unknown to keep him competitively sharp.
Now that it’s playing as firm and fast as a summer links, the Albatros Course at Le Golf National suits McDowell’s game to a tee. And he’s taken full advantage by following a brace of 69s with a near perfect 70 to share the third round lead with the dangerous Richard Sterne on five under par.
“I played very nicely today, I really did,” McDowell said after hitting 10 fairways and 15 greens and making two birdies and just one bogey.
He wasn’t joking. With a little more luck with the putter he could have been out of sight but instead, five shots cover the top 26 players on the leaderboard.
“This golf course demands fairways and greens - most golf courses do - but this one more so,” said McDowell, who is chasing his third win this season. “Shots off line here get punished heavily and the greens are very firm.
“I described this golf course earlier in the week as a Scottish or Irish links meets the Stadium Course at Sawgrass. It’s got the Stadium Course risk/reward with the water and it’s firm and fast like a links with a lot of fescue around, which is a great combination.”
According to the European Tour, McDowell also said:
“This isn’t a place where you can drive wildly; you’re gonna lose a ball, you might lose your bag.”
McDowell and Sterne will begin Sunday’s final round with a one shot advantage over Australian Richard Green, England’s David Howell and Bernd Wiesberger. There are birdies galore on offer but also the threat of doubles, triples and worse over the water strewn last four holes.
“Shots off line here get punished heavily and the greens are very firm,” McDowell said. “I described this golf course earlier in the week as a Scottish or Irish links meets the Stadium Course at Sawgrass. It’s got the Stadium Course risk/reward with the water and it’s firm and fast like a links with a lot of fescue around, which is a great combination.
“This is going to be a phenomenal venue come the 2018 Ryder Cup. The last four holes are as good a dramatic risk/reward finish as you could ever imagine with the combination of an amazing natural amphitheatre with a lot of people around.
“The 15th and 18th are two phenomenal holes, especially the 15th where the pin was cut today. When the caddie in front put the flag back in the hole I though they had missed the green with it. It actually looked like it was in the water. And 18 today in the right to left wind, you really had to stand there and try and hold one up into the wind.
“Hopefully I will have the opportunity to try and close it out tomorrow down one of the toughest stretches in European golf.”
As for his bid for a third win this season following victories in the RBC Heritage and the Volvo World Match Play, McDowell said: “Exciting.
“It’s been a rough couple of months with a few missed cuts and a few weekends off to contemplate what’s going on.
“It’s done nothing but motivate me and make me work harder and harder and more hungry for days like tomorrow. So I will be excited and looking forward to it and let’s see what we can do.”
He added: “I couldn’t have asked for a better position to be going into the last round. Well, I’d like to be five ahead, of course, but I’ll take it. I feel under control and I’m enjoying it
“It’s a packed leaderboard with so many guys within five shots so anything can happen tomorrow and I really just need to go out there and keep my head down and see what we can do.
Sterne, who carded a third round 71 to stay alongside McDowell in five under, couldn’t agree more.
“I was very pleased with 71 at the end,” said the South African, also a winner this year on The European Tour at the Joburg Open.
“This course can bite you in a lot of places and obviously the finish here is probably the toughest finish on the Tour. I got off to a good start today. Just had two or three bad swings at the wrong time and unfortunately that’s the game.
“I am looking forward to playing with Graeme. He’s a Major winner and it is always a good sign when you are teeing off in the last group of a big tournament with a Major Champion.”
McDowell was chasing Thomas Bjorn for most of the third round before the Dane came home in 40 for a 74 that relegated him to joint eighth on two under.
McDowell was one of just 17 players the 65-man field to break par in the third round. None of the others were Irish golfers.
Gareth Shaw shot a 74 to slip back to joint 33rd on two over with Gareth Maybin, who carded a level par 71.
And there was little joy for the others either with Damien McGrane joint 41st on three over and Michael Hoey a shot futher back as they carded three over 74s.