McDowell’s two-under-par 68, featuring a very special eagle at the par-five fifth, was his reward for a week of steeling himself to be mentally strong enough to resist an aggressive approach on this toughest of courses in North Carolina.
He had warned that Pinehurst No.2, with severe run-off areas waiting around fast, crowned greens, would require patience and the ability to grind and he took his advice to the letter with a gritty round that featured a birdie and a bogey to go with the eagle.
“Very pleased. This was a golf course where I spent the last few days just preparing myself mentally for the challenge, knowing this golf course wasn’t going to give much and it was only going to take,” McDowell said.
“So I really kind of felt like I got my head in the right place the last few days. It wasn’t my best ball-striking display, but you don’t have to strike it amazing 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, that’s about the only way you can attack this course.”
McIlroy did it his way, aggressively, and came out of the recorder’s room with a one-over 71, while McDowell went his way and finished two shots better. Both men hit 13 of 14 fairways but McDowell needed three putts fewer than his fellow Irish Major champion’s 33.
If there was a putt of the day from McDowell, it was at the par-three sixth, when his 30-footer rolled eight feet past the hole, and he came back in style for an excellent par save.
It marked the end of a three-hole stretch that had seen the 2010 champion bogey the par-four fourth having bunkered short and right with his approach and then bounce back brilliantly with an eagle at the fifth, McDowell sending in a three wood from 248 yards and holing his 12-foot putt up the hill.
It earned the praise of McIlroy, who said: “G-Mac didn’t start the best and made that eagle on five. Then he gets the most out of it and misses it in the right places, has a really good short game, holes big momentum putts to keep his run going. He always seems to be able to make those.
“This is his ideal sort of tournament, grinding it out, and the winning score not being too much under par and he knows how to do that well.”
There is, of course, a long way to go in this most gruelling of championships that already has a leaderboard featuring some of the world’s best players. Joining McDowell in the clubhouse on two under was American Kevin Na, runner-up after a play-off to Hideki Matsuyama at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, with the young Japanese star part of a large group a shot back on one under.
There were some big guns in that list, with world number two Henrik Stenson, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar and Jordan Spieth all finishing with 69s.
While McIlroy has targeted 14 or 15 birdies for this week in order to be successful at Pinehurst, Masters runner-up Spieth, who had four in his first round as well as three bogeys, believes this course will not be so compliant.
“It would be difficult,” Spieth, 20, said. “Four birdies I think is a lot in this tournament per round. There will be some pins on holes that will be easier than there were today. But then there were some gettable pins. I think if I’m striking the ball well, I should have enough looks to capitalise on that. I’m striking it pretty well. It’s getting close.
“I started missing fairways in the middle kind of second half of the round today. It’s not fun to play out of the weeds. But I got it around. So if I get back on track to the beginning of the round, sure, I think there’s some birdies out there.”
One shot back from Spieth and company lies six-time US Open runner-up Phil Mickelson, whose quest to complete a career grand slam of Majors began with an even-par 70, while playing partner and defending champion Justin Rose rallied from being four over par after his first nine, starting from the 10th, to card a two-over 72.
One better was the third member of the group, Rose’s fellow Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick, playing his last tournament as an amateur.
The Sheffield teenager joined McIlroy in the clubhouse at one over par following his opening 71.
Irishmen Shane Lowry and Darren Clarke were both off slowly in their late-starting opening rounds.
Former Open champion Clarke was six over par after 13 holes but BMW PGA Championship runner-up Lowry was showing signs of a rallying down the closing holes, having made the turn in three over par.
The Offaly man, playing this week courtesy of being a medallist at the international qualifier in England, birdied the fifth, his 14th, to get to two over with four to play.