When Graeme McDowell arrived at Bethpage Black this week for the 101st PGA Championship, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
He had mostly fond memories of playing the course in the 2009 US Open, where despite a final-round 74 he finished T-18, but didn’t fare as well when The Barclays, a PGA Tour FedEx Cup playoff event, was held here in 2012 and 2016.
“I was pretty happy when I saw it yesterday, how thick the rough was,” he said. “I felt like no-one can play the rough if they’re missing fairways. And I like the way that kind of looked for me. When it plays long for everyone, I’m okay with that.”
If you didn’t know any better, you’d think Bethpage Black was hosting the US Open this week.
“I think if you pinched the fairways in maybe another 3 feet, 4 feet on each side, you’d have a US Open,” McDowell said. “I think that’s the only difference. They’re probably slightly more generous that the USGA would have them, but only very, very slightly. It’s an intimidating test off the tee. You have to drive the eyes out of it. The guy who wins this week, he’ll be top 10 in total driving. Without a doubt.”
Despite a bogey at the last, McDowell had little to complain about after an even-par 70 in the opening round.
Still, that left him a distant seven strokes behind defending champion Brooks Koepka, who fired a bogey-free 7-under 63 that tied the course record.
While Koepka brought the 7,459-yard par-70 monster to its knees on Thursday, McDowell embraced the challenge ahead of him of trying to catch the American, who is seeking his fourth major championship.
“Anytime we play where par is a good score I lick my lips a little bit because I know I can grind with the best of them,” McDowell said.
I’m happy enough going against Brooks Koepka. If he’s hitting 5-iron, I’m happy enough to hit 5-wood or 3-iron. If he’s hitting 9-iron and I’m hitting 4, that’s a problem. This course is not that kind of course. He’s got 5-iron, and I’ve got 3-iron or 5-wood.
McDowell seems like a new man on the golf course this season.
An attitude adjustment to embrace the struggle of regaining his PGA Tour card and earning his way into this summer’s Open Championship at Portrush has served him well.
He won the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship in March to lock up his PGA Tour privileges for the next two years, which he described as a gorilla off his back.
“I don’t know how to deal with fighting for my card. It’s not really how I’ve been wired and how I’ve played all my career,” he said.
It has allowed him to play with a new sense of peace and “free wheel it” as a potentially special summer awaits him — first with a return to Pebble Beach in June for the US Open, site of his major triumph, and the ultimate home game at Portrush beckons. First, McDowell must qualify as many fans were quick to remind him.
“A lot of people on the rope line are saying to me, I hope you get into Portrush. It would be terrible if you weren’t there,” McDowell said. “I’m like you don’t have to remind me. I’m well aware.”
When asked if he knew all the various scenarios in which he could still earn a spot into the Open, he ticked off a handful of ways and then deadpanned, “I don’t really know to be honest with you.”
McDowell is trying to push thinking about Portrush in July to the far recesses of his mind as best he can.
“If I start getting obsessed with Portrush I’ll be right back where I was six weeks ago before I won with a gorilla on my back. When there is a big weight on my shoulder, I’m not that good,” he said. “I’ve just got to get out of my own way and have a little fun and not have things like that rattle around in my head too much.”
Yesterday morning, McDowell traded three birdies against three bogeys and scrambled well, particularly on the back nine.
He got into red figures at the fifth hole, rolling in an 18-foot birdie putt and didn’t make a bogey until No 11 when he flared his drive into the right rough.
When he was out of position, he took his medicine and gave himself a chance to rescue par, which he did on the tough par-4 10th. Crooked tee shots cost him on the 11th and 15th.
But he struck a 4-iron at the 203-yard 17th to 13 feet and rolled in the putt. A stubbed chip from the thick rough circling the 18th green was a rare unforced error that led to a dropped shot, but all in all a solid first day.
I missed a fairway on 10. Great up-and-down from about 100 yards for par. You know, really, really hung in there well on the back nine,” he said. “Birdie on 17 was a bonus and the bogey on the last was disappointing.
Shane Lowry struggled to find fairways and to make putts - a recipe for disaster - and signed for 5-over 75.
To make matters worse, he was whisked away for a random drug test. Tiger Woods, making his first start since the Masters, made two double bogeys on the front nine and shot 2-over 72.
Pádraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy played in the afternoon and were both 2 over par midway through the first round.