US Open 2014: Graeme McDowell makes most of nurdler's paradise

Ulsterman stirs memories of 2010 as compatriot McIlroy sees impressive hitting go unrewarded
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The Independent Online

"I like the way you're thinking," said Graeme McDowell when it was pointed out to him how the stars were aligning after his opening round at the US Open. McDowell's two-under 68 left him in a share of the clubhouse lead with Kevin Na, the best of the morning starters.

Hegemony lasted until late in the day and was surrendered only to Martin Kaymer, who birdied three of his closing five holes to establish a three-shot advantage over the field. Four years ago at Pebble Beach McDowell sailed under the World Cup radar to land his maiden major victory. The way he threaded his ball around a parsimonious Pinehurst suggests he might just reprise the experience come Sunday.

There is in North Carolina, of course, no football radar under which to sail. The World Cup is a snippet in the 'other sports' sections of the local paper. “I ain't a soccer guy,” said the man from the Observer. Nobody is, which is disappointing considering this part of America's eastern seaboard was settled by Scots. 

McDowell's 68 was text book US Open golf on a track that drained the charge from the game's power hitters. Playing alongside McDowell and smashing the ball 50 yards further off the tee Rory McIlroy gained nil advantage from his prodigious length.

A birdie at the last for a 71 was balm of sorts but hardly the reward his ball striking deserved. “Rory played magnificently this morning. He hit some beautiful golf shots. I'd like to play like that sometime, but it's never going to happen,” McDowell said.

It doesn't have to. Around here, in bone dry conditions, the nurdler is king. “It wasn't my best ball-striking display, but you don't have to strike it amazingly around here, you just have to position the ball correctly at all times, because unless you're Rory McIlroy, and the ball-striking display he put on this morning was out of this world, that's about the only way you can attack this course.”

You will have gathered by now that McIlory was for the most part playing golf of an entirely different order. But the ball does not distinguish between a decent strike and a great one. The greens are the ultimate arbiter in this sport, and around them McDowell was on the money.

Sheffield teenager Matt Fitzpatrick was a respectable one-over par after the first round (Getty Images)

The second hole made the point. McDowell was in the bunker to the right, the default bailout at the hardest green to find on the course. Webb Simpson, the third wheel in the group, was bunkered to the left. McIlroy was five feet from the pin, his approach off another sumptuous drive, landing like a butterfly on a turtle's shell.

The lesser gods got up and down and McIlroy missed the tidder for birdie. Honours even on a hole McIlroy mocked tee to green. The par-5 fifth was another hole that demonstrated Pinehurst's capricious heart.

McDowell, having been shortest off the tee, was first to shoot for the green, lasering a rescue club to ten feet. McIlroy was again in a different part of the park, needing only a short iron into the green. His ball pitched six inches to the left of Simpson's mark. Simpson's ball stayed glued to the surface, McIlory's began the slow, inexorable slide into the sand.

Like a man hanging from the Empire State Building, the outcome was inevitable and thus did Mcilory's hopes on an eagle die. Not McDowell's. Oh no. He allowed McIlory to secure his par before drilling the ball in the cup for an eagle that took him into red numbers for the first time.

McIlroy is still waiting to sample that joy. “I played beautifully from tee-to-green and am really happy with that. I'm just going to work a little bit on my speed on the greens and if I can get that dialed in then I'm pretty confident going into the next three days,” he said. “As I look at it, it's inevitable that you're going to make mistakes out here. It's just how you deal with it, accept it and move on. I felt like I did that pretty well today.”

Only eight players ended the day under par. Sheffield's 19-year-old US Amateur Champion  Matt Fitzpatrick looked like being one of them before a run of three bogeys in his final five holes took him from two under par to one over. Still a triumph, one better than defending champion Justin Rose, and only one behind Phil Mickelson, with whom he shared the day.

“I was pleased and disappointed at the same time,” Fitzpatrick said. “To get under par really was quite nice, and it would have been nice to just steady out the rest of the day. A couple of bogeys coming in cost me so mixed emotions, I guess.”     

Among the morning highlights was the tribute paid to the late Payne Stewart, who won here 15 years ago, by Ricky Fowler, turning out on the first tee in a pair of white plus-fours and matching knee-length socks.

The dress-code saw him reach two under inside five holes, insurance against the inevitable moment when Pinehurst pricks the ego. Fowler gave back his gains by the turn but was round in 70 and more than happy with his day. 

Not so Luke Donald, who required a birdie at the last to record a 77.