Graeme McDowell felt and looked like a champion reborn here at the Scottish Open yesterday.
With his US Open title now inclined to cause more pride than expectation and with another Northern Irishman kind enough to divert the spotlight, McDowell is able to stride forward.
As it was, his second-round 64 saw him take significant steps up the leaderboard from a tie for 30th into a tie for first. On 11-under, McDowell will be in contention on the weekend at an event he won back in 2008. That was when the stunning but wholly inappropriate environs of Loch Lomond staged The Open Championship's "warm-up tournament".
Some might consider yesterday morning's benign conditions to represent an unsuitable test with Sandwich's severe examination looming. But McDowell is not one of them. The Castle Stuart links was just what he wanted. "The balance is just right," said the 31-year-old. "If we had a brutal test here, like a Carnoustie, I think in a way you'd be mentally worn out. The golf course is a lot of fun to play and is giving us the practice in and around the greens, which is key next week. It's going to give us some confidence but it's probably going to take 20-under or something to win."
He rightly made the point that a links without wind is "generally pretty low scoring". The supporters didn't complain; until the afternoon storms arrived which ruined what was an idyllic golfing scene. They had watched any number of the competitors surge below par. Furthermore there were a few home hopes among the leaders. Also on 11-under, were the Scots Scott Jamieson and Peter Whiteford after a pair of 66s.
But then came the rain and the cursed "electrical activity" which forced suspensions and played havoc with the challenges of the likes of Luke Donald, the world No 1 and Lee Westwood, the world No 2. But with the softened ground the fun shouldn't stop. "If we get another couple of days like this morning, someone could go ridiculously low," said McDowell. Could someone do the magical 59? I don't know. Typically I prefer the tougher test, but it's nice to shoot 64s and know I can do it. The art of going low is very important. My schedule is set up to play tough courses and you kind of lose that art. It's great to get the low juices going again."
If his body language is anything to go by, those juices have an intoxicating quality. But then, so too does the lifting of all that baggage he carried after his remarkable breakthrough at Pebble Beach 12 months ago. "I really shouldn't be complaining about the burden of being US Open champion," he said. "But it did have a negative side to it in the last few months leading up to Congressional. I wanted to push on with my game and didn't feel I could, spending all my time living in 2010."
McDowell put up a commendable defence in Maryland, a tie for 11 being the very least his ball-striking deserved. But he, like the rest, was labouring in the shadow of another Ulster hero. And that's fine as McDowell is concerned. "There's another Northern Irishman to take all the attention off me," he said. "I'll let him handle that at next week's Open. I'm happy just to push on and start playing well again." Rory McIlroy will be mindful of the level of golf his pal can produce. With four wins last year McDowell proved he comes alive at the scent of victory - and the Ryder Cup provided mere confirmation that he is the man for the big occasion. In all probability he will have to peak again in the Highlands. In behind are the likes of Justin Rose, Padraig Harrington and the American Matt Kuchar on eight-under.
Donald and Westwood, meanwhile, are on seven-under with nine and seven holes respectively to complete this morning. The latter can finish in the top five and reclaim the top-dog mantle in the rankings if his rival comes outside the top 25. However, that now appears unlikely. Westwood will probably have to finish in the top two if he wants to become the first Briton to take the No 1 tag into his home Open in 18 years.
Playing with Donald is Colin Montgomerie on six-under. The 48-year-old needs at least to finish in the top five to have a chance of claiming the one Sandwich berth on offer here. He will have returned to the course first thing today down in 25th place and aware that plenty was required if he is to extend his run in the Open to 22 championships.
Still, Monty was two better than Phil Mickelson, although the sponsors will simply be relieved to see the left-hander make the cut. A 66 was so much more attractive than his opening 73, but Mickelson will need first to survive the chop and then delve deep into his box of miracles to make up the seven shots he has thus far conceded to the pacesetters.
Scottish Open at Castle Stuart (British and Irish unless stated) 78 players were still to finish their second rounds when play ended for the day:
11 under S Jamieson (after 36 holes)
G McDowell (36)
P Whiteford (36)
10 under J M Lara (Spa) (36)
9 under A Cabrera (Arg) (36)
N Colsaerts (Bel) (36)
P Lawrie (36)
8 under M Brier (Aut) (36)
D Dixon (36)
P Harrington (36)
M Kuchar (US) (36)
C Nilsson (Swe) (36)
J Rose (36)
J Donaldson (23)
M Tullo (Chile) (21)Reuse content