PINEHURST, N.C. – Graeme McDowell took to Pinehurst No. 2 Thursday like a man who has been in this spot before.
A U.S. Open champion from four years ago, McDowell plotted his way around Donald Ross’ iconic design with a clear plan in place: remain patient, and above all else keep it in play. It resulted in a 2-under 68, good enough to share the early clubhouse lead with Kevin Na.
“It wasn’t my best ball-striking display this morning, but you don’t have to strike it amazing around here, you just have to position the ball correctly at times,” McDowell said. “I played the golf course very conservatively.”
While the fairways here are not as narrow as the targets players faced last year at Merion, plenty of danger still lurks on either side. McDowell was able to avoid almost all of it in the opening round, missing only one fairway while reaching 13 of 18 greens in regulation.
His scorecard had just one blemish – a bogey at No. 4 – but that was quickly countered by an eagle at the par-5 fifth, and McDowell added a birdie at No. 14 to move near the top of a crowded leaderboard.
“I positioned the ball great off the tee. I drove it really well all day,” he said. “Generally kept the ball exactly where I wanted to going into the flags, short of a lot of the greens (and) on the correct side of most of the flags.”
McDowell is no stranger to leaderboards at the U.S. Open, with four straight top-20 finishes from 2009 to 2012 highlighted by his win at Pebble Beach and runner-up showing two years later at Olympic. With a fast and firm golf course expected to get only more difficult as the week progresses, the Ulsterman offered a sobering outlook on what it might take to lift the trophy on Sunday.
“This golf course is difficult, and good shots are going to finish in bad spots and you’ve just got to really, really grind hard. It’s not going to give you a lot of opportunities,” he said. “I think the winner of this tournament is going to make 10 to 12 birdies, maximum. That’s only three a round.”