Less than two weeks away from his defence of the US Open title Graeme McDowell suffered the potentially devastating shock of an 81 – the joint worst round of his entire European Tour career – at Celtic Manor today.
On the course where he was not only Europe’s Ryder Cup hero last October, but also Wales Open champion five months earlier, the world number five crashed from one off the lead to an incredible 11 strokes adrift.
Swede Alex Noren still leads after a rollercoaster ride of a 71 in the windy conditions – compatriot Peter Hanson and Dane Anders Hansen are one behind, Hansen after a superlative 66 – but the story of the day was inevitably McDowell’s tumble from second place overnight to 33rd.
And this less than a month since he collapsed from first to 33rd with a closing 79 at the Players Championship in Florida.
It could have been even more of a meltdown, though. He thought he might get a two-shot penalty for tapping down the ground as a chip came back to him on the 12th, but he escaped that because it was down in anger rather than with the intention to improve his lie.
"Obviously I'm very disappointed,'' he said. ``I got off to a start where everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
“I just couldn’t get anything going. It was the most crazy seven holes I’ve had in a long time – my head was spinning.
“I feel I got heavily punished for some mediocre golf, not disastrously bad golf.
“After the 11th (a bogey six on a reachable par five) I completely lost my patience and at 12 (a quadruple bogey eight) I just lost my head. That was me gone.
“I felt like I was in control of my game, but I very swiftly got out of control.
“I’ve made more double bogeys and triple bogeys this season than ever and I need to address that and understand why that is. It kind of broke my heart a little bit.
“Tomorrow I’ll try to shoot 66-67, then lick my wounds and get ready for Congressional. But there are some mental areas that I’ve got to address.”
McDowell’s previous worst rounds on the European circuit were 81s at Valderrama in 2002 – his rookie season – and at Pinehurst in the 2005 US Open.
He was far from the only one to suffer – Darren Clarke shot 80, Thomas Levet and Stuart Manley 81, Paul Broadhurst and Jason Knutzon 84 – but he was certainly the most notable.
It was simply hard to believe at the venue where he finished 64-63 last May to turn a six-stroke deficit into a three-shot victory.
Television commentator Wayne Riley had only to witness a few holes to comment: “Welcome to the torture chamber”.
Battling with a hook, the Northern Irishman was in two bunkers for an opening double bogey, dropped more shots at the second and fourth, then went from a rough into a ditch at the 433-yard fifth.
He then hooked out of bounds on the short seventh for a third double bogey and after repairing some of the damage with birdies at the eighth and ninth came to grief again.
His second shot to the 11th with a fairway wood kicked into the water and after his six there his eight came when two chips from just off the next green rolled back to his feet and he then three-putted.
At least he played the last six in one under, two-putting the par five last for birdie.
Noren looked as if he might tumble off the leaderboard as well when he three-putted the fourth and sixth and then took six at the long ninth after a wild drive led to a penalty drop.
But the 28-year-old, winner of the European Masters in Switzerland two years ago, came back with three birdies in four holes from the 11th.
That enabled him to grab the lead back from Hansen, who from two over after three holes went crazy with six birdies and then a near-albatross at the downwind 575-yard last.
Needing only a seven-iron for his second shot he could not believe that it finished three inches behind the hole.
“I’ve never had albatross, but I’m happy with eagle,” he said.
Hanson, who made his Ryder Cup debut at the course last year, started with two bogeys, but played the last 16 in five under to boost his chances of a fifth Tour win.
Welshman Jamie Donaldson is two behind in fourth place as he seeks not only to become the first home winner, but also grab his first Tour victory in well over 200 starts.