Graeme McDowell and Castle Stuart have never been a match made in heaven.
To suggest his affection towards the Inverness venue has been slow-burning would be an understatement. At one point, antipathy was as audible as it was mutual. How that scenario could come full circle should McDowell stand with the Scottish Open trophy aloft on Sunday.
McDowell is seeking to win for the first time in Europe since the summer of 2014, an achievement that can be considered a live one after the Northern Irishman managed a first round of 70. He is only a shot from the top of the leaderboard.
No analysis of this Thursday scenario would be complete without a glance back. McDowell did not much fancy Castle Stuart when the Scottish Open was first played here in 2011 and did not return for the subsequent two years. In 2013 he caused controversy by insisting the tournament had “lost its prestige”. He added: “Castle Stuart probably hasn’t been a strong enough course the past couple of years. Let’s get the Scottish Open on a phenomenal links course with a great purse and a world-class field.”
Ouch. McDowell realised the error of his ways, calling the general manager of Castle Stuart and the event’s main sponsor with profuse apologies. Moreover, he restored the Scottish Open to his schedule. Still, the 2010 US Open champion’s first-round prominence on a day that provided a “strong” links test inevitably raised some smiles.
McDowell, to his credit, was happy to address history. “It’s a really nice course,” the 36-year-old said. “People are going to say I’m full of shit having criticised it pretty heavily and now I’m saying it’s good. But I’m allowed to change my mind and I like the golf course.
“It [the criticism] was inadvertent. It was an attempt to kind of get the Irish Open thrust into a better spot in the calendar more than anything. I was just being a little selfish from that point of view. I am really quietly surprised by how good the course is. It really does feel like it’s designed for this wind direction. The course is completely different to 2011; a couple of nice changes, a couple of nice bunkers have been added. The welcome has been fantastic. I love coming back to Scotland. They look after me here.”
Not everyone was as invigorated as McDowell; an attendance of 8,787 on Thursday seemed ominously on the low side. Holiday season perhaps played a part in that. The broader picture relates to the Open at Troon next week. Rory McIlroy spent the day at the Ayrshire course, as did Lee Westwood. McDowell has opted for an alternative approach.
“I just want to compete, get the confidence, get the momentum,” he said. “I’m going to try to stay patient this week, get ready and see what happens for next week. But there is a fine balance. You’re certainly not going to go out there and drive balls into this wind on the range for too long. It can mess with your technique and mechanics a little bit when you do play too much golf in the wind. By all accounts I think we’re going to have a windy Open, so I think this is good preparation.”
Andy Sullivan matched McDowell’s first-round score with Luke Donald, who has earned a spot in the Open from the reserve list, signing for a one-under-par 71. Scott Hend and Felipe Aguilar had set the pace at minus-three by lunchtime before Danny Lee, somewhat remarkably given routine 35mph gusts during his afternoon at work, joined them. Trauma was to arrive for Lee on the 18th, where he made a double-bogey seven for a 71 after losing a ball.
Phil Mickelson was among those to struggle in such fierce conditions. The 2013 champion could score no better than a 76 strewn with six bogeys. “It was difficult but not unfair by any means because this is a course with wide fairways and receptive greens,” the American said. “I wasn’t disappointed with the way I played, my putting cost me three or four shots.”
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