Even when opening with a four under 66 to be just a shot off the lead in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Graeme McDowell couldn’t escape the inevitable Rory McIlroy question.
With the world No 1 hinting strongly in a series of Instagram posts that he’s seriously considering returning from injury in next week’s PGA Championship in Wisconsin, McDowell revealed he’d been in touch with his former stablemate but he didn’t sound 100 percent convinced that Whistling Straits was the best choice of venue.
Having played the course earlier this week, McDowell told reporters in Akron: “He certainly looks like he could. If it wasn’t such a hike around that golf course next week, I think he would be back.
"But I played it on Tuesday, and as far as demanding walks go, that’s right up there. It’s pot holes and side slopes. It’s a tough walk. He’s a fit kid. He’ll come back when he’s ready. Certainly, golf swing looks all right.”
According to AP, a spokesman for McIlroy said the world No 1's rehabilitation was progressing well, as the Instagram video posts suggest, but that he was "still taking it day by day.”
The same could be said for McDowell’s game, which has been average by his high standards for six months, leading to his fall from 15th to 60th in the world.
The 36-year old needs good finishes over the next two weeks as he’s 159th in the FedEx Cup standings. And he was certainly pleased to play very well for nine holes and then battle hard to stay afloat coming home for a 66 that leaves him tied for second with Jim Furyk, just a shot behind New Zealander Danny Lee.
As Shane Lowry finished bogey-bogey for an even par 70 that was still good enough for a share of 22nd and Pádraig Harrington posted a two over 72, McDowell was happy to drive the ball well and hole putts.
“I drove the ball really well on the front nine and into trouble a few times on the back nine,” he said after following birdies at the second, third, sixth and seventh with a 20 foot par saver from off the green at the ninth.
“And when you miss fairways this week with the greens being as firm as they are, you are going to be in trouble.
“I’ve spent the last 10 days wokring on drivers and making my putting just a little more solid. And the putt on nine was huge, it is all about momentum at this point. That was a Brucie Bonus there, it really kept the round going.”
Having taken the lead at five with a birdie from six feet at the 10th, McDowell stalled in tricky conditions coming home and bogeyed the 12th by going over the back.
He then started missing fairways — on the last six holes he missed every fairway bar the 18th and hit just two greens in regulation — yet he still made six pars thanks to some wonderful scrambling.
He knows it is only a matter of time before his confidence returns but he’s also aware it’s not going to be instantaneous or automatic
“When you are playing golf against some of the best fields in the world, you can post two or three rounds in the 60s and feel like you are back competing and the confidence should come back pretty quickly,” he told Sky Sports. "One 66 is not going to do it. It is going to take a few.
"I know what to do when I do get on the boards and it is just a case of trusting my swing and continuing to do what I am doing. I am just excited to post a good early round and get out tomorrow and get another crack at it.”
It was his third consecutive round of 66 in Akron, after a strong finish to the event last year helped him claim his first top ten finish in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
“I think it (the course) is a bit trickier this year,” McDowell added. “In years gone past, the fairways have not really been a must because the greens have been extremely receptive, and the guys can still hit the greens out of the rough.
“I think this year, when it's firm and fiery, even the rough's firm and fiery, the ball is bouncing into trouble when you do actually hit it offline here, and the greens are hard to hold.
"So it's tricky. I had my first top 10 here last year. I kind of cracked this nut last year for the first time, and it was my best finish here ever. Maybe I’m starting to feel a little more comfortable on this golf course at long, long last. It was definitely a puzzle which had eluded me for years.”
Furyk bogeyed the last hole for his round of 66 as Lee set the pace on five under par following a round of 65.
Englishman Justin Rose shares fourth place with Rickie Fowler, with both players carding rounds of 67, while Frenchman Victor Dubuisson, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and English trio Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey are a further shot back, among an eight-way share of sixth position on two under par.
Lowry opened with a birdie at the 10th, bogeyed the par-three 15th and then failed to convert chances at the next three holes to tirn in level.
A missed six footer at the first could have frustrated him but he two putted for his birdie from 65 feet at the second and dropped a 15 footer at the fourth to get to two under only to complete his nine with two bogeys
Having saved a good par with a nice five footer at the 16th, he had to scramble just to make bogey off a slightly pushed drive at the eighth, then dropped another stroke at the tough ninth where he bounced right off the camber into the rough and missed an eight footer.
Harrington never got much going and was one over until he birdied his ninth, the 18th, from 32 feet.
While he holed some good par putts, he bogeyed the par-five second and the par-three seventh as poor tee shots led to missed greens and outside chances failed to drop for him on the last two greens.
Web.com Tour — Seamus Power opened with a four under 67 but found himself tied for 36th, five shots behind leader Craig Barlow in the Digital Ally Open in Kansas.
The West Waterford player made just one bogey at Nicklaus Golf Club at LionsGate in Overland Park, Kansas as Barlow made nine birdies in a 62 to lead by one stroke on nine under par.