On another day more suited to moorhens than birdies and eagles, Graeme McDowell managed to cling onto the leaderboard yesterday without ever quite reproducing the form that had yielded one of only three sub-par opening rounds and a share of the lead. The 28-year-old Ulsterman is used to leading the Open on day one, having posted a course record 66 down the coast at Hoylake two years ago, but he slumped to a final-round 79 that year and finished a distant 61st. This time, he is determined to keep the campaign going, and if a European is to prevail at Birkdale for the first time in nine Opens, he is certainly the form horse.
McDowell played beautifully to capture the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond last week, and beautifully again on Thursday for his 69. His 73 yesterday was not a thing of quite such pulchritude, but it had other virtues, such as grit. Dropped shots at the second, sixth, 10th and 11th left him needing a decent finish, and the finishing stretch at Birkdale at least includes a pair of par-fives, the 15th and 17th, which in normal circumstances offer opportunities to improve the card. But these are not normal circumstances. Playing the 15th yesterday morning was like soldiering the wrong way through a wind tunnel, and although the 17th was downwind, the pin position on the controversial green, just over one of Birkdale's nastiest bunkers, might have been positioned by Torquemada.
Instead, McDowell found the birdie he so coveted on the 16th, the hole where a plaque marks the spot from which Arnold Palmer, in similar conditions, conjured one of the greatest shots in the history of major championship golf. During the final round in 1961, on what was then the 15th, Palmer's drive ended up in a tangle of gorse and bramble. He somehow excavated the ball with a six-iron and smashed it on to the green, uprooting a good deal of vegetation in the process. Palmer's swing was never pretty – the novelist John Updike once said it looked like someone wrestling with a snake – and that one must have been less pretty than most. But the shot was pivotal in Palmer getting his sausage fingers on the Claret Jug for the first time, and if McDowell manages to do likewise, he too will remember his second shot to Birkdale's only elevated green, albeit in the second round and from the fairway. It was a towering three-iron, belted as hard as he could into the unrelenting wind, to five feet. The shot of a man who grew up on the buffeted northern coast of Northern Ireland, where little old ladies go out to the shops and end up on the Mull of Kintyre.
Afterwards, McDowell declared himself "ecstatic" with that shot and also suggested that he is an altogether different golfer to the one who squandered the first-round lead in 2006. Heading into the weekend, he added, he is "right where I want to be". He could have been in an even better place had he holed an 18-foot putt on the last. It teetered on the lip and stopped, but he knocked it squarely in for his par, which was more than could be said for one of his playing partners, Rory Sabbatini, on the par-four third.
The South African is not known for his sunny disposition, indeed his disposition is very often the same colour as the Birkdale weather, and at 10 over par, having knocked his second over the back, he approached the green with a face like thunder. However, he then played an exquisite chip to an inch or two away, and with almost defiant insouciance, went to tap the ball into the hole with the toe of his putter. From where this correspondent was watching, it looked suspiciously as though he missed first time, and then repeated the stroke more successfully. The match referee, Mark Wilson, spotted it too, and questioned Sabbatini as soon as he walked off the green. Sabbatini explained that he had stumbled, which satisfied Wilson, who comes from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and happens to be the rules chairman of the USPGA. "Only he knows," he told me. "But these guys have a lot of integrity."
Coincidentally, there was a similar episode at the Open here in 1983, when Hale Irwin, when strongly in contention, wafted a tap-in at the 14th. Irwin called the air-shot on himself and as Wilson said, only Sabbatini knows whether he should have done the same. It would have made no difference, though. A 75 left him at 14 over par, while the third member of the trio, the 2004 champion Todd Hamilton, had a 74 to finish at eight over, just inside the projected cut. He will be here for the weekend but is hardly in a position to win the Open. Unlike McDowell.