McDowell focuses on big picture as Portrush dream looms into view
Graeme McDowell in a still from a  Team RBC video  on his journey in golf

Graeme McDowell in a still from a Team RBC video on his journey in golf

Graeme McDowell insists he must not become obsessed by qualifying for The Open this week despite firing a four-under 68 to roar into contention in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.

The famously dogged Portrush native (39) desperately wants to play in the game's oldest major on home turf next July.

But while there are spots on offer for the top-three non-exempt players finishing in the top ten this week, he knows he can't afford to heap more pressure on his shoulders after losing his PGA Tour card last year. 

"I haven't played very well historically with a gun to my head," said the former world number four, now 259th, and playing on a sponsor's invitation this week. Scores

He added: "Of course the big goal this year is to be at Portrush and to play The Open Championship in my home town six weeks after the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. So it's going to be a special summer, if I can get myself there. 

"The game's there right now; I've just got to get out of my own way and have a little fun with it and not have things like that rattle around in my head too much."

McDowell joked about his status in the game when he was flying out of Orlando to the Puerto Rico Open three weeks ago as as his higher ranked colleagues boarded a plane on the far side of the departures hall to the opposite field WGC Mexico Championship.

“Scenes at @MCO this morning: @JetBlue to Mexico City and @WGCMexico leaving from gate 3 and the flight to San Juan for @PuertoRicoOpen leaving from gate 6 opposite side of hall. Heroes take a left, zeroes take a right!.”

He was making a joke at his own expense but also making it crystal clear that he’s not happy to be on the far side of the fence separating the pack from the game’s elite having lost his privileged place in the game almost before he realised what had happened.

“It's literally just life. Life,” he said. “Life just got in the way. Mostly the family stuff and I don't think I ever sat back and rested on my laurels and thought I was -- I just, my practice changed, my, the time that I was giving to the game changed and I was less effective in what I was doing. It snuck up on me.

“It sort of happened before I realise it had happened, but it's just life, you know, life just got in the way and it's hard to get it back. I've been chipping at it, but it's hard to get it back. But like I say, trying to enjoy that process of digging myself back up there.”

All he can do now is stick to the golfing cliches and take it one shot at a time. There’s no other way.

“i’ve got a lot of work to do this week, got a lot of work to do tomorrow, just trying to like I say look at the big picture, take the pressure off myself,” McDowell said. “it's hard to do. It's hard to do because I want it really badly, I want to be back up there competing with these guys and I do feel like I have some good stuff in me.

“But I've had to ask myself some pretty hard questions the last couple years. Thankfully I've came to the conclusion that if it was all gone, I would miss it. So, you know what, let's try and enjoy it while it's here.

“It's an opportunity. It's not an opportunity to beat my head against the wall, it's an opportunity to try and dig myself out of a hole and look at that challenge as something to be enjoyed and it's going to be very rewarding when I do get out of it.”

He added: “It’s always nice to come back to a golf course that you had some good memories on and certainly asks a lot of questions, this golf course, there's half a dozen shots out there where you're like, this is a good one, I got to stand here and hit a golf shot right now.

“So that's kind of what I need right now, I need to look up and see that ball going where I expect it. The X-factor that's missing in my game right now is just that little belief level.”

Spain's Rafa Cabrera Bello shot a seven-under 65 to lead by two shots from Keegan Bradley with McDowell a further shot back in joint third after bouncing back from two bogeys in his first three holes.

But while McDowell's playing partner Shane Lowry made six birdies and four bogeys (including one at the last) in an encouraging, two-under 70, the new-found patience of defending champion Rory McIlroy — dressed in beige and blue as a tribute to Arnold Palmer — was tried to the limit before he salvaged a level par 72 with two late birdies.

"I hit some pretty wayward shots out there,"  said McIlroy, who hit just seven fairways but two-putted the par-five 16th and then made a 20 footer for a two at the par-three 17th to undo the damage. 

"It would have been nice to shoot under par in the end but I am only three shots off the top 10 and the way the forecast is with a little wind and a bit of heat the course is going to dry out, and it is already playing pretty tricky.

"I’ll go out in the morning and try and shoot a good one, and I will be right there for the weekend."

McDowell showed he's still a dangerous player at a venue where he finished second in 2005 and 2012, following bogeys at the second and third with four birdies and an eagle from 16 feet at the 16th.

"It's really important that you hit fairways this week here at Bay Hill," the Antrim man said. "So the big key today was getting the ball in play and my iron play was pretty sharp after that and I made some putts too."

On the European Tour, Gavin Moynihan made six birdies in an adventurous, one-under 71 to share 38th, four shots behind pacesetters Adri Arnaus and Justin Walters in the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.

He made five birdies and two bogeys to turn in 33 but bogeyed the 10th and double bogeyed the 12th before finishing with a birdie four. Scores

“It was a tough day out there,” Moynihan said. “I putted nice but I was a bit sloppy tee to green. It was very windy for my last 12 holes.”

Team Ireland's Neil O'Briain was tied for 25th, five shots behind South Africa's JC Ritchie, after opening with a two-under 70 in the Sunshine Tour's Limpopo Championship. Scores

In Florida. Leona Maguire birdied the last to open with a two-over par 74 in the SkyiGolf Championship on her return to Symetra Tour after her marathon journey from Australia.

She tied for 67th, seven shots behind leaders, Lauren Kim, Jessy Tang and Jilian Hollis, who shot 67’s at Charlotte Harbor National Golf Club. Scores