McDowell in the mix - "Three more rounds like that, who knows!"

McDowell in the mix - "Three more rounds like that, who knows!"
Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell wait with their caddies on the 18th hole during a practice round at the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif. on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Copyright USGA/Michael Reaves)

Shane Lowry and Graeme McDowell wait with their caddies on the 18th hole during a practice round at the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif. on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Copyright USGA/Michael Reaves)

Graeme McDowell allowed himself a celebratory fist pump when he rolled in a 15 footer for a gutsy par save at his final hole and opened with a 69 to move into contention at Pebble Beach.

He knows there's a long way to go, but it gave him a lot of satisfaction to shoot the only bogey-free round of the morning wave and keep his run of good vibes going on the west coast.

The Portrush man missed just two fairways in a model US Open performance, and when he did make mistakes, he made up for them with great putting and chipping to end his day just three shots behind leaders Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele and Louis Oosthuizen, outscoring Dustin Johnson by two shots and Phil Mickelson by three.

"I played mistake-free golf today," said McDowell, who is tied for 16th, four strokes behind Justin Rose, who shot a 65 to leqd by one stroke from Aaron Wise, Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele and Louis Oosthuizen.

"I hit it in a lot of fairways and on the right side of a lot of pins. It didn't feel like a Pebble Beach US Open just yet – careful what you wish for on the weekend.

"We will get firmer and fasters, but looking at the leaderboard there's not a lot of big numbers, lots of guys in the red and I played very solid. I was happy with the way I hit the ball.

"Wedge play could have been a bit tighter and left a few putts out there, but all in all I would have taken that start this morning.

"I am really happy with my general execution today and the way I struck the ball. Three more rounds like that, who knows!"

As McDowell (39) rolled back the years to his 2010 win, it was a disappointing rollercoaster ride for Shane Lowry, who hit just nine greens in a four over 75.

McDowell followed 12 straight pars with birdies at the fourth and sixth before saving par from 15 feet at the ninth to leave himself right in the hunt for his second major.

But Lowry mixed two birdies with two bogeys and two costly double bogeys for a 75 that leaves him needing a good round on Friday afternoon to get back into the tournament,

It was a tough pill to swallow for the affable Offaly man, who had just an eight-footer for a birdie at the first but missed it on the high side.

Had that gone in, it might have been a different story for the world number 32. But he struggled at the par-four second, tangling with the deep rough surrounding a fairway bunker.

He eventually took four to find the green, gouging his second into more thick rough on the left. He then found sand in three and had to hole a 12 footer for his bogey five,

He bounced back with a three at the short, par-four fourth after an excellent second but drove into trouble right at the par-five sixth, running a double bogey seven after hacking out and then sending his third into some juicy right of the green.

Even when he recovered again with a two at the 108-yard seventh, rolling in a 12 footer, he made another double bogey at the ninth when he pulled his 206-yard approach into deep rough and moved his third just 20 feet.

Another shot went at the 11th, where his tee shot sailed into the right rough, and he came up short in a bunker with his second.

To his credit, he steadied the ship coming home, finishing with seven pars in a row.

But as Lowry struggled, McDowell cruised along in conservative mode, opening up with 12 successive pars before he flicked a wedge to four feet at the 328-yard fourth and converted the birdie putt.

The Portrush man then made birdie at the par-five sixth, hitting a wood just short of the green before opting for the Texas wedge and two-putting from nearly 50 feet for his four.

Still on a high after clinching his place in The Open at last week's Canadian Open, he had missed just one fairway all day until he drove left into a fairway bunker at the ninth.

A bogey would not have been a disaster, and after laying up 60 yards short of the green, he hit his pitch to 15 feet and rolled in the putt for par.

"It's pretty sweet coming back here," McDowell said. "Thankfully I've been back a few times in the AT&T which takes the edge of a little bit because I didn't want to be coming in here and looking around and reminiscing. I wanted to come here and compete.

"I feel like my game is trying to get in the right direction. I was looking for an under-the-radar grouping this week, but I didn't really get it.

"But in a funny way I felt nearly under the radar because, you know, Phil and Dustin were, I felt like it was all eyes on those two guys out there today, and I was just kind of plodding around, doing my thing. So that felt okay to me.

"And executed really well today, tee-to-green. I made very few mistakes. My wedge play was a little off. But apart from that, I felt really comfortable on the golf course, and I felt like I executed my game plan really well."

He was pleased to finish well with pars at the tough eighth and ninth holes but he wasn't doing cartwheels over a 69.

"Listen, it was very benign out there this morning," he said. "There was obviously lots of red on the board early. We were joking with Piercy was five-under after six that the USGA radios were going off saying, 'Turn the water off now', you know, 'Enough of this.'

"But you've got to be careful what you wish for out here because I think it is only going to get more difficult. Greens were starting to firm up. It's a sleeping giant, this place. We all know that. Give it another five-mile-an-hour wind out there, and, I mean, the place starts to change. Like I say, a lot of grinding ahead."

He was especially impressed with Johnson, who shot 71 that could have been far higher and even joked with the world number two after his otherworldly up and down from thick rough at the eighth,

"I said to him I felt like I was watching Dustin Johnson's greatest ever up-and-down moments today because he hit it in position V, W, X, Y and Z out there. 12, 13, 8, and there were a couple of others. I mean, you expect it from Phil, but Dustin was pretty awesome around the greens today.

"Even Austin said I think it was 5 of our top 10 ever best up-and-downs today. So it was fun. I enjoyed the pairing today. Phil was intense, and he was getting into it, and Dustin -- he wows.

"The drive on 18 [340 yards], I think he hit it straight onto the second page in the yardage book. It was past the first page all the way onto the second page, went in there with 7-iron. It was amazing.

"Four was pretty awesome as well. But I'm used to that. He did that in 2010 as well. So that's just the way he plays 4. He just rips it right at it."

"I don't think level par wins this week. I really don't. I feel like the fairways are soft and they're not going to get any fierier than this, and they're spongy. Makes the fairways play a little wider, so fairways are easier to hit.

"But I fully expect the greens to get firmer and faster. I really felt like the green speeds today weren't really anywhere as fast as they can be.

"Phil hit it 30 feet past the pin on one, for example, and that putt should have been scary fast. It just wasn't scary, scary fast.

But like I say, careful what you wish for because I think we're going to see it come the weekend."